Can Text Messages Make Us Healthier? The Aetna Foundation Thinks So

Everyone is using their smart phones these days, and younger people text like crazy. So it's no wonder that more funders are looking at how to tap into the new digital addictions to achieve their goals.

Last month, we wrote about how the Lumina Foundation was funding an innovative effort that uses regular texts to help young people navigate college financial aid and enroll in college.

Today, we look at how the Aetna Foundation is turning to the digital realm to advance its work on improving health. Earlier this year, the foundation announced that it was granting $4 million to 23 organizations across the country to support the use of digital health technology with the goal of reducing health disparities in vulnerable populations. Garth Graham, president of the foundation explained the funding this way:

…we believe that digital health technology can serve as a powerful equalizer for improving health education and access to care among minority and low-income communities by reaching people where they are spending time—at school, at church, in their neighborhoods and on-the-go with real-time solutions that easily fit into their daily lives

Aetna backs up this claim by pointing to a study, conducted by the Pew Research Center, which found that over 30 percent of cell phone owners use their phones to find health information. Additionally, Latinos and African Americans aged 18 to 49 are the most likely of any group to access health information on their phones and mobile devices.

The digital technologies Aetna is supporting with this latest round of grants are Mobile Health or mHealth programs.

MHealth programs have been around for a while, delivering health information to mobile devices. Take the Institute for eHealth Equity’s (IEHE) Text4Wellness program, for example. It works with faith-based organizations in three low-income communities, offering health and wellness text messaging that church leaders share with their congregations.

The program delivers four weekly text messages to member cell phones. If the members don’t want to wait for their weekly healthy living text message, they can simply text "healthy" to a number and receive health, wellness, and nutrition tips. The program will also send out text messages announcing things like new exercise classes or information about local farmers markets.

IEHE received a $100,000 chunk of Aetna’s $4 million commitment to launch its Text4Wellness program at five churches in Cleveland and five in Atlanta. Though the project is a nine-month pilot, IEHE CEO Silas Buchanan is already looking toward replicability and scalability of Text4Wellness and hopes to bring retail stores, beauty salons and barber shops into the fold.

Other mHealth programs supported by Aetna through this round of grants include Diabetes Goal Tracker, Get FIT and S4L.

Diabetes Goal Tracker is being developed by the American Association of Diabetes Educators Foundation (AADE). This mobile app helps diabetics manage their disease by suggesting goals toward healthier eating, increased physical activity, coping with stress, blood glucose monitoring and taking medications as prescribed by their doctors. Diabetes Goal Tracker is a free app and is available on iTunes and the Google Play Store.

The Get FIT Mobile App was developed by the Rowan University Foundation. Working in conjunction with the Family Resource Center of new Jersey, the Get FIT app works to improve access to health and wellness programs for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The overall goal of the app is to reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome by providing diet and exercise information to its users.

S4L Healthy Goal Tracker was developed by Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Inc. S4L provides easy healthy tips to its users such as adding a vegetable to dinner each night and taking family walks for 30 minutes at least three times a week. The app allows a family to set attainable health and wellness goals, and to track their progress toward those goals.

The 23 organizations that have received Aetna support in this latest round of grants were chosen based on several criteria including project sustainability, scalability, and positive societal impact potential. Since its inception, the Aetna Foundation has awarded over $400 million in healthcare related grants promoting healthcare equality and innovations and supporting healthy and active lifestyles.

(Read IPs profiles for Aetna grants for Disease and Public Health to learn more about the foundation’s grantmaking)