This is a story about a now year-old study looking at whether a program of semi-personalized mobile phone text messages supporting healthy lifestyle choices led to significant differences in cholesterol levels, systolic blood pressure, and BMI in a group of patients with known coronary heart disease, compared to those who did not receive such messages.
The story makes those differences clear in an accessible chart.
What is less clear is whether these differences are due to beneficial changes caused by the text messages or other factors. For example, in a subsequent letter to the journal, a researcher notes that the differences in blood pressure between the two groups were due mainly to 7-point increase in the control group, whereas the text message group’s blood pressure stayed about the same over the course of the study. Similarly, the BMI differences between the groups were due partly to an increase in BMI in the control group and weren’t entirely due to reductions in the text message group. The story communicates the study results accurately and doesn’t suggest that the text messages lowered CVD risk factors from baseline. Without a more specific explanation, however, many readers may assume that’s what happened.
Another cautionary note is that the headline goes beyond the findings, suggesting that text messages can possibly “prevent” heart attacks. The study offers no evidence for that link: There was no measurement of heart attack rates between groups. Instead, they measured several surrogate markers associated with heart disease, such as lipid levels and blood pressure.
According to the story, more than 25% of all heart attacks in the United States are “repeat” events, making treatment—both medication and lifestyle elements—of heart attack victims once they have returned home important. Social media and text messaging offer means for providing informational interventions, and studies of the impact of messages on a host of illnesses is brisk.
So far, past studies indicate that people abandon healthy behaviors far more quickly than would be perhaps predicted, so a new study showing the potential that text messaging can be an effective behavior-changing intervention is welcome news.
Although the peer-reviewed study on which this story seems to have been based on makes the point that text messages could offer a low-cost strategy for reducing the chances of subsequent heart attacks, the story does not reflect on cost.
A clear and readable chart in the story quantifies the apparent benefits of these text messages. But what’s missing here is some nuance: The control group saw a rise in blood pressure, whereas the experimental group remained relatively the same–their blood pressure didn’t actually get lower. So, does that even translate to an actual reduced heart disease risk? And does any of this actually prevent heart attacks? These unanswered questions could have been better emphasized.
The concept of “harm” does not appear to be relevant here. Individuals may find text messages to be annoying, of course, but the study itself notes that participants “overwhelmingly” reacted positively to the intervention. That doesn’t make it into the story.
The story makes it clear that the study utilized an experimental and a control group, and that this study duration was longer than past studies. Yet the headline suggests that text messages can “prevent” heart attacks. The study offers no evidence for that link: There was no measurement of heart attack rates between groups. Instead, they measured several surrogate markers associated with heart disease, such as lipid levels and blood pressure. This should have been stressed.
Repeat heart attacks are relatively common, making continued, at-home treatment of heart attack victims important.
The story clearly identifies one source as the leader of the study and includes a second source who appears to be independent of the research. Funding sources are missing from the story, but the study’s declarations of funding do not seem eyebrow-raising.
The story does mention some other interventions used to prevent heart attacks, such as typical medications taken to lower blood pressure or cholesterol.
The story explains that the study leader is now involved in an effort to replicate her results, which implies that the treatment regimen is not available at present. However, studies of social media and apps used to promote healthy behaviors are ubiquitous, so it might have been useful for the reporter to explore the availability of this strategy compared to others on the market now.
The text does a decent job of explaining the novel aspects of the study compared to some similar efforts, though more could have been included on the results of the previous research.
Also, since this particular study was actually published nearly a year ago, in September 2015, an effort to update our understanding of message effects would seem to make sense.
We weren’t able to locate a news release, but the inclusion of an independent source in the story is a reliable indicator that the story didn’t rely on one.