Healthcare organizations around the world are launching text messaging services in the hopes of reaching and improving care for low income patients. From Africa to the United States, these programs look to take advantage of the proliferation of mobile phones.

HIVSA, the South African HIV/AIDS outreach organization, announced in February that they have launched a mobile health program called hi4LIFE that allows people to make phone calls and receive text messages that can help assist them in making healthcare decisions.

In speaking with a South African radio station, hi4LIFE manager Rob Allen explained the importance of the new program.

“There’s a severe lack of doctors, people walk an awful long way to clinics, there’s very little health information around,” Allen said.

“Mobile phones create that new opportunity for getting messaging and public health information to people in a way that hasn’t been done before. In South Africa now, you’re getting somewhere in the region of 80 percent of the people with mobile phones and that creates this huge opportunity to get health information to people who’ve never had it before.”

A statement on the HIVSA website stresses the importance of “providing easy access to relevant, updated public health information.”

Back here in the United States, a similar effort is being launched to combat a very different chronic condition by Chartered Health Plan, Inc., the oldest Medicaid managed care organization in the nation’s capital. The program, still in its early stages, connects 50 diabetes patients in Washington, D.C. with important care and treatment information in the hopes of preventing unnecessary emergency situations.

“Mobile health is the wave of the future for improved management of chronic disease,” said Richard Katz, M.D., director of the division of cardiology at the George Washington University Hospital, which previously partnered with Chartered Health Plan on a similar program. “It can be extremely popular with diabetes patients and result in reduced emergency room visits and hospitalizations.”

Many studies show that people who are vigilant in their diabetes care can more effectively manage the disease. However, many lower income people that Chartered Health serves find it difficult to understand and manage the disease.

Another SMS-based healthcare service is being launched by the Southeast Michigan Beacon Community (SEMB), which services the Detroit and Dearborn areas of Michigan. Text4Health, like Chartered Health’s service, delivers information to people who have been diagnosed with or are at risk for diabetes.

Treating diabetes in Michigan costs more than $8 billion annually, according to the 2010 report “The Economic Burden of Diabetes” published in Health Affairs. This makes assisting diabetes patients in their care not only a moral imperative, but an economic one as well.

In a brief video recently co-produced by SEMB and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, Dr. Herbert Smitherman Jr. said that Text4Life is the first step in an ambitious mobile health program by SEMB.

“We’re starting with diabetes,” he said. “But once we establish this sort of information highway, we can then use it for other diagnoses.”

In the video, SEMB director Terrisca Des Jardins lays out a vision for what patients might expect from the organization’s future mobile health initiatives.

“They’ll be able to take a patient assessment, which will connect them to the resources in the community so that they can seek the care they need,” she said.