San Diego Battling ‘Whooping Cough’ with Text Messages

San Diego, June 4, 2012 -- The director of Calit2’s Center for Wireless and Population Health Systems, Dr. Kevin Patrick, is leading an effort to use text messaging to encourage more young parents to immunize their kids against pertussis, or whooping cough. Following are excerpts from editor Rex Graham’s article, which can be read in its entirety at the San Diego Biotechnology Connection:

Kevin Patrick, MD, is a co-founder of Santech, Inc., and director of Calit2's Center for Wireless and Population Health Systems. Click here to watch a video about the text messaging project produced by the San Diego Biotechnology Connection.
Alarmed by outbreaks this year of pertussis, or whooping cough, in children in Washington, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Montana and New Mexico, public health experts in San Diego are using text message [reminders] to increase immunizations against pertussis and other preventable diseases in 1-year-olds.

Pertussis is a highly contagious, infectious disease characterized by severe coughing with an inspiratory whoop.

The San Diego Beacon Community, an initiative to improve healthcare delivery across the region, is currently enrolling up to 600 parents of toddlers in a study designed to measure the effectiveness of texting. If it works as expected, the texting platform designed by Santech, Inc., a mobile technology and behavioral science company in San Diego [co-founded by Dr. Kevin Patrick], could be applied in other ways to not only save lives, but also reduce the number of hospital and emergency room visits.

With the goal of completing a child’s 15- and 18-month immunizations by the time they turn 2 years old, parents participating in the texting project are asked to schedule clinic visits for shots. Their responses elicit follow-up messages based on their individual needs.

A 2011 PEW survey conducted in English and Spanish reported that eight in 10 American adults (83 percent) own a cell phone, and 95 percent of those owners who are in their prime child-bearing years (18-29 years old) send or receive text messages. 

Most young parents would rather text than email, which fits Santech’s approach. The company’s SanText™ platform has connections to almost all cell phone carriers and is integrated with clinics and public health records. Parents reportedly love the interactive, personalized messages, which come in multiple languages. 

“It’s not just sending messages,” explained Dr. Kevin Patrick, MD, MS, a co-founder of Santech, Inc., professor of Family and Preventive Medicine at the UCSD School of Medicine and Director of the Center for Wireless and Population Health Systems at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2). “Our texting engine provides the ability to send a message, get a message back, and tailor subsequent messages based on those responses, so it gets smarter and smarter over time the more the dialogue with the particular user happens.”

Call it smarter public health. There is no shortage of statistics suggesting that more effective communications are needed:

  • Only 67 percent of toddlers nationwide receive all the recommended vaccinations for 14 vaccine-preventable diseases by age 2, according to the U.S. National Immunization Survey.
  • The immunization rate rises to 98 percent by the time children enter kindergarten, but public health experts are eager to improve the immunization rate for children in their second year of life.
  • Santech has found that its texting has become such an accepted social media tool that it can easily be tailored to improve successful participation in programs that focus on smoking cessation, weight loss, medication adherence and other health needs.

A 2011 PEW survey also found that the rates of text messaging by adult African Americans (76 percent) and Hispanics (83 percent) were higher than Whites (70 percent), across a wide range of mobile applications. In addition, parents of children ages 17 and under are more likely to use their cell phones for a wider variety of activities than are other adult cell phone owners.

“It’s relatively new,” Patrick said. “A major multi-nation study that came out in The Lancet this past year said smoking cessation can be increased with text messaging, and our group at UCSD had the first study showing that text messaging can have a positive effect on treating obesity.” It was logical to extend those successes to childhood immunizations.

“We can reach a relatively large population of people at a relatively low cost,” Patrick said. “And if we can improve vaccination rates in young children, we can extend this same approach to influenza vaccinations and other programs that could improve public health broadly.”

Patrick is part of an influential group of San Diego mobile-health, or M-health visionaries, who include Dr. Eric Topol, Director of the Translational Science Institute at The Scripps Research Institute; Paul Jacobs, Chairman and CEO of Qualcomm; and Larry Smarr, Director of Calit2.

“We have a great opportunity in San Diego to become one of the regional leaders in this area of mobile health,” Patrick said. “The power of the computers we’re all carrying around in our pockets is enormous, and if we can harness that, this could be as powerful as vaccines.” 

Related Links

San Diego Biotechnology Connection