Despite widespread educational efforts aimed at helping the public make healthy choices, it's understood among experts that people often fail to comply with the advice offered by their doctors and others in the health community.

To correct this deficiency in compliance, some researchers are now proposing that text messaging be used to send out health tips to consumers. Given it's popularity and low expense, they say,  regular text messaging may be just the thing to prompt people to make behavioral changes for the sake of health

A recent study published in
the November issue of Archives of Dermatology put the idea to the test by sending out daily text messages to participants reminding them to wear sunscreen over a six-week period.

Seventy individuals (age 18 and older) participated in the study and were asked to apply sunscreen daily. Half were randomly assigned to receive text-message reminders, while the other half did not receive any reminders.

Two text messages were sent out everyday,  one detailing daily local weather information and another reminding users to apply sunscreen. Adherence was assessed through electronic adherence monitors adapted to participants' sunscreen tubes that would send electronic messages to a central station every time the cap of a tube was removed.

"At the end of the 42-day (six-week) study period, the control group had a mean adherence of 12.6 days of sunscreen application, which corresponded to a 30-percent daily adherence rate. In comparison, the group that received daily reminder messages had a mean adherence of 23.6 days and a daily adherence rate of 56.1 percent," the authors write.

Twenty-four (69 percent) participants in the reminder group reported that they would continue to use the text-message reminders after the study and 31 (89 percent) said they would recommend the reminder system to others. There were no significant demographic factors that predicted adherence.

"The short-term results of our study suggest that cellular telephone text-message reminders are a low-cost, scalable and effective method of bridging this knowledge-action gap. Introduction of a program that incorporates text-message reminders to a large population may be an innovative preventive health measure against the development of skin cancer."

: April W. Armstrong, MD; Alice J. Watson, MD, MPH; Maryanne Makredes, MD; Jason E. Frangos, MD; Alexandra B. Kimball, MD, MPH; Joseph C. Kvedar, MD, 'Text-Message Reminders to Improve Sunscreen Use', Arch Dermatol. 2009;145(11):1230-1236.