A new study has proven SMS messaging to be an effective way of ensuring young patients get protected against influenza.
The research was undertaken at Mailman School of Public Health and Columbia University, under the auspices of a team led by Dr. Melissa Stockwell. They studied 660 children aged between 6 months and 8 years old, an age range that requires two doses of the flu vaccine, administered 28 days apart. The first dose primes the immune system; the second dose protects it. Kids who fail to get both doses are not fully protected against the virus, a fact which prompted researchers to find ways of increasing follow-up appointments.
The team sent text message alerts to remind parents of young patients to bring them in for the second dose. They began by splitting the participants into three groups:
- Group 1 received an educational SMS containing information on the importance receiving two doses of the vaccine.
- Group 2 received a conventional reminder SMS, simply alerting them to the time and date of the second appointment.
- Group 3 received a written reminder only.
The results showed that kids who received the educational text message were much more likely to attend their second appointment. Nearly three quarters of Group 1 showed up for the second dose, compared with less than a third of Group 2. Of Group 3, 57% attended for the second shot.
Feedback from the families was positive, with nearly 61% of parents citing the text message alert as either the primary reason or part of the reason they attended the second appointment.
The findings could ultimately improve flu vaccine coverage, which is low among young children. Dr. Stockwell equates failure to receive both doses to ‘wearing half a bicycle helmet’ and says many kids are ‘unprotected when the virus begins circulating.’
Previous studies have shown that appointment reminders issued by mail or telephone are ineffective, especially among low-income, urban families - precisely the demographic most at risk for under-vaccination.
Mortality rates are hard to accurately gauge, but CDC estimates anywhere from 3,000 to 49,000 flu-related deaths occurred in the United States between 1976 and 2007. The most at-risk groups are the elderly and the very young, but because seasonal influenza often leads to death from other causes, the virus is rarely listed on death certificates. Experts agree that counting only those deaths where flu is listed on the death certificate would constitute a gross underestimation of the true impact of the virus.
Dr. Stockwell’s controlled trial provides the medical community with valuable information for establishing best practices for influenza vaccine reminders. It seems that text messaging is a highly effective method, one that is already being used with increasing frequency in other areas of medicine.