Text messaging best practices emerge

Text messaging has changed the way we communicate with each other. And soon, it may change the way doctors communicate with their patients. Trials of SMS text messaging systems are already signing up thousands of users in health promotion campaigns.

mobile health conferenceBefore texting can enter the realm of critical medicine, however, it will be important to understand what constitutes a best practice for text message phrasing.

Frederick Muench, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University Medical Center, has been researching the topic. At the HIMSS Media mHealth Summit in December, he'll share some of his findings in the presentation Text Message Preferences to Inform Interventions for Goal Directed Behaviors.

Muench's findings are based on work that testing how different types of messages would impact participants in alcohol intervention programs.

"We ended up realizing," he described his experience, "that we were writing all sorts of different  messages, but we didn't really know the basic tenets of what constitutes a good text message. That is, what constitutes a good text message in that patients would be most receptive to receiving and heeding it."

As it turned out, Muench found, very little research had been done on determining consumer preferences for different types of messages, both in terms of their content and how they were structured. Should you use emoticons or not, depending on the audience?  Is humor effective, when used in text messages, in conveying particular information?

Information like that would serve a number of healthcare stakeholders, given that programs such as Text4baby, the maternal and child health program, and Text2quit, the smoking cessation program, have already signed up tens of thousands of users.

Muench found "as with any market research, we know that understanding receptivity and user preferences is very important.  So tailoring interventions effectively will lead to people using the messages, and higher engagement will lead to better outcomes."

It's important to note, Muench said, that this study was not actually conducted via text message. Rather, it was an online survey designed to determine stated preferences, not to measure actual use.

So, what are a few things we should be mindful of as we text?  According to the study, 75 percent of respondents prefer receiving statements to questions, most are likely to prefer messages in "non-textese," and happy emoticons and correct grammar increase satisfaction with messages received.

Also, when asked to match message styles (CAPs or no caps) with message intent, CAPs were preferred by people when they were associated with specific goals.

Muench hastened to add that further studies are certainly in order -- "We're still new to understanding texting as a unique medium," he said. -- but as the use of mobile continues to expand, style questions will likely become ever more pressing, particularly for healthcare stakeholders aiming to get a response from target audiences.

Visit the HIMSS Media mHealth Summit website for more details.