Rural health centers send texts in English and Spanish aimed at rural residents who sign up for services. One text in Spanish says the Office of Research on Women’s Health offers personal and professional development resources, while a second text says the center is hosting a seminar on April 20 to educate the public about the causes and effects of extreme heat. (Photo image by Drake Presto/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Text messages updating rural residents about COVID-19 are now being expanded to include other health issues for those with less access to health care, including people of color, immigrants and those who are immunocompromised.

The platform was created to provide rural healthcare providers with up-to-date information on COVID-19 protocols in the early days of the pandemic. The University of Arizona’s Center for Rural Health sent texts to more than 3,000 subscribers during the pandemic, according to Maia Block Ngebe, who coordinates outreach for the program. But as the number of cases caused by the coronavirus continues to decline, the need has evolved.

In the three years it has been available, the platform has been updated to provide information, such as mental health best practices, healthy aging tips, and updates on new strains of COVID-19 to the general public and medical staff. Customers can use the two-way texting feature to update their preferences and provide more information about their family’s health.

“It was very challenging for people in rural Arizona at that time to stay up to date on what the evolving guidelines and protocols were,” Ngaibe said. “Azcovidtxt allows people to get short and quick updates on emerging guidelines, very concisely, from a trusted source of information.”

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The program, based at Arizona’s Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health in Tucson, has developed platforms and systems funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the CDC, “rural Americans are more likely than their urban counterparts to die from heart disease, cancer, unintentional injuries, chronic lower respiratory disease, and stroke.”

According to the Rural Health Information Hub, rural residents often live in “medical deserts,” requiring more visits to hospitals, medical clinics and specialists than urban residents.

Timeliness, reliability and accessibility are a primary focus for the team behind the system.

“Texting has been identified as a potential way to reach these rural communities that often lack cell phones and internet connectivity,” according to Ngaybe. “It’s a way we might be able to reach them a little more efficiently.”

He explained how it works: Residents learn about the reading program, usually from community organizations like local churches, community centers or events. People sign up by texting “Join” to 1-833-410-0546, then are asked to fill in information such as their zip code, employment status and whether they are health care workers, essential or non-essential workers. Users are also asked whether they prefer to receive texts in English or Spanish, what preexisting conditions they may have, and “what information are you having trouble accessing this week?”

The platform’s staff, which includes public health and computer science students at UArizona, produces a stream of current health-related news articles, reports and updates tailored to user needs and location.

Customers received a text on April 7 that provided information on an upcoming seminar on the effects of extreme heat.

Changing the name of the COVID-19 program azhealthtxt, officials told other health providers at a spring conference of public health officials in Phoenix. The Uarizona group was among several new programs, funded by a $2.25 billion grant from the CDC, aimed at closing health-care gaps in the United States.

According to Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, public health officials from Arizona’s 15 counties gathered in Phoenix at the annual conference to share best practices to address disparities.

“We thought it would be a good idea to have a conference where we invite all the counties to present their work under that CDC disparity grant so they can learn what each other is doing and best practices,” he said. “They can then take the information they learn and change their plans for the next year or include other things.”

The health association’s annual conference centers on the most relevant topics in the medical field. Previous conferences have focused on topics such as mental health and the opioid crisis.

This year, the association’s conference focused on the disparities in health care historically experienced by high-risk and LGBTQ+ individuals, rural residents and those who are homeless.

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