Over 4.1 billion cell phones are in use globally, and they are quickly becoming a part of the “digital life” for many.Reports indicate that individuals worldwide now use Internet-based and mobile technologies to find health-related information more frequently than ever before. Although cell phones are more common than computers in some areas of sub-Saharan Africa, it is important to note that they are frequently low-cost models with less features as opposed to high-tech smartphones, so mobile web-based information and applications may not be available.
As a means of delivering health-related information in remote areas, many clinics and organizations have begun to utilize short message service (SMS) technology. SMS or “texting” is a mature technology that is supported worldwide on all cellular network operators, through which messages of up to 160 characters can be delivered to a user’s cell phone. In regions where “personal computer technology” may not be available, it is possible to better ensure the delivery of health-related information through the use of basic cell phones and SMS technology. Over the past few years, SMS-based systems have been put in place throughout the developing world to combat diseases like malaria, provide medical and health information, and support rescue and relief efforts following natural disasters.
In regions where malaria is prevalent, SMS systems, such as the “SMS for Life” program currently in use in Africa, have been implemented to deliver information about the availability of treatment and medications. This program allows the inventory of anti-malarial medications at healthcare facilities throughout Africa, particularly in remote areas, to be tracked by clinics and aid organizations to improve distribution rates. Similar programs which allow physicians to monitor their patients at a distance have been put into practice for other diseases, including a program to ensure the provision of quality care to patients with HIV/AIDS in Kenya. This type of patient-monitoring SMS program has also been instituted to allow healthcare workers in Rwanda to monitor pregnant patients remotely, provide basic health and well-being information to patients throughout Africa, and provide clinic location information to patients in India.
SMS systems have also been established following natural disasters, such as the earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010. A number of relief organizations set up SMS shortcodes, which assisted individuals searching for friends and family members. Shortcodes are set numbers – usually only five digits long – used to quickly and easily gather messages for delivery. Additionally, SMS messaging and shortcodes allowed for a simplified donation process to a number of aid organizations providing assistance in Haiti.
Although mobile applications, smartphones, and other cutting edge technologies have provided enormous advancements in healthcare, high-tech solutions are not always appropriate for worldwide use. In settings where reliable Internet connectivity may not be available and where basic cell phones are the norm, SMS-based systems allow for the distribution of health-related information to a wider audience.