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mhealth for employees: learning from the birds & bees

June 27, 2009

in health care,health communication,mobile health,wellness

in north carolina, some teens are having “the talk” with the birds & bees text line. the adolescent pregnancy prevention coalition of north carolina developed this mhealth program to combat their state’s ranking: ninth-highest teen pregnancy rate in the country. (revisiting their abstinence-only sex ed curriculum might be another idea.) the text line offers all north carolina-based teens an anonymous way to ask their very personal questions and receive honest, nonjudgmental advice.

since its inception, the line’s nine staff members have received the questions you’d expect — “how do i know whether i’m kissing correctly?” or “my friend says i won’t get pregnant the fist time. is that true?” they’ve also received questions that cover tougher, more sensitive issues like “why do guys think it’s cool to sleep with girls and tell their friends?” or “do i love her or do i love the sex?”


so far, the program seems to be working. one likely reason is the anonymity the text line provides. sex, especially for teens, is embarrassing and confusing. the text line offers teens a safe harbor in an area where a false move can leave lasting scars. and having a way to get answers far from your parents’ prying eyes and without fear of your friends’ guffaws? what teen wouldn’t go for that?!

the text line also has several “best practice”* communication elements:

  • relies on the audience’s preferred communication channel. teens text. need i say more?
  • delivers personal messages at point-of-need. teens text the line when they have a situation to explore or resolve. they pull the information that’s specific to their situation, and they can do so exactly when they need it.
  • uses direct, conversational, and simple language. the health professionals responding to the incoming texts don’t use clinical language. they’re health professionals, so it’s not that they couldn’t. but they know that reaching these kids requires talking to them in a way they understand. big, intimidating-sounding words aren’t going to help uncomplicate the very mystifying things we bundle under the word sex.
  • is honest and human. the text line’s staffers don’t steer away from difficult conversations. they have certain topics that are off limits, but they don’t redirect. they answer even the most challenging questions with refreshing honesty. in answer to the question about why guys sleep and tell, a staffer texted, “mostly it’s because they believe that having sex makes them cool. most guys outgrow that phase.”
  • it’s two-way. the ability to talk with a real person is what makes this text line an advancement over others in chicago, toronto, and washington, dc. despite any lingering perceptions that text allows for only truncated conversations, the staff members have extended exchanges before resolving the concern or connecting a teen with a more appropriate resource, such as a clinic or hotline.

the birds & bees text line is just one example of what mhealth offers. crumple it up and andre blackman of pulse + signal (two great blogs — read ’em if you’re interested in health communication) recently covered the concept of mhealth and some of humana’s innovations. mobihealthnews covers aetna’s plans to create a mobile app for their health portal, smartsource. there’s also a lot to learn from what’s happening in developing countries.

if i were a company concerned about health care costs, productivity, and presenteeism, i’d certainly be looking for ways to add mhealth solutions to my health communication strategy. not only can companies achieve all that’s outlined above, they can achieve one more critical thing that the birds & bees text line intentionally avoids: reaching the family.

i’m excited by the prospects of mhealth for companies. what say you?


* i put quotes around the words best practice because i’m not a fan of the term. too often people and companies get hung up on following best practice instead of implementing the solution that’s right for their situation.

[image: uberculture]

Leave a Comment

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

erica holt June 29, 2009 at 5:30 pm

Fran, Thanks for sharing; what a cool project. This reminds me of San Francisco’s http://www.sextextsf.org/, which I have read has been quite successful. Teens can text “SexInfo” to a five digit short code to get back a menu of five commonly asked questions by young people and receive instructions to text back a number in order to get the answers to those questions.


Amy Jussel June 29, 2009 at 6:47 pm

Agree w/Erica: reminds me of the Sex::Tech Conference and various projects from ISIS-Inc. here, using mobile 411 for everything from STD testing/privacy issues to teen anonymity with outreach:
http://www.isis-inc.org/projects.php —Great work all!


fran June 30, 2009 at 8:50 am

erica & amy, thanks for the comments & links to sex:tech. that effort sounds similar to the others in chicago, toronto, etc.


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