Smokers get the message

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND ' Dr. Malcolm Miller has temporarily hung up his stethoscope and other tools of the trade to promote the use of mobile phones and other wireless devices to help foster healthy living and support health care clinicians.

Miller, three month into his job as health sector manager for the New Zealand unit of global mobile phone giant Vodafone, has already seen some success in using mobile phones to promote healthier living through a smoking cessation program supported by mobile text messaging. 'People who text [message] more, smoke less,' Miller said.

The University of Auckland tapped into that idea with a program called Stop Smoking with Mobile Phones Trial (STOMP) earlier this year. Through STOMP, a group of young people enrolled in a smoking cessation program got free text messaging service. The participants used their phones to send messages of support to friends enrolled in the trial.

The university's Clinical Trials Research Unit (CTRU) said the group that sent text messages were twice as likely to quit when compared with results from a control group during a six-week period.

Miller said those findings are significant because the young smokers enrolled in the trial are the least likely to enroll in conventional smoking cessation programs. Dr. Anthony Rodgers, the CTRU's director, said the approach promises to help young adults by harnessing the growing popularity of mobile phone text messaging. Taking advantage of that trend could be a new weapon to combat the similar escalation of youth smoking.

Miller said health care was an unusual and unique vertical market for Vodafone to pursue. The company is active in health care only in the United Kingdom, where the company supplies 100,000 mobile phones to staffers in the National Health Service.

Robin Ducker, executive officer of the New Zealand Health IT Cluster, said this program reflects the intersection of technology and health care in a nation that has only four million people. The health IT cluster includes global giants such as Vodafone and home-grown companies such as Orion Systems International, which last week won an electronic health record contract for Alberta, Canada.

Although larger and supposedly more sophisticated countries, such as the United States and United Kingdom, struggle to push adoption of electronic health records above the 30 percent range, Ducker said, roughly 80 percent of New Zealand's doctors have already embraced such systems. MedTech, based in Auckland, supplies the majority of the systems. MedTech has expanded outside New Zealand to Australia, Singapore, Brunei and a number of Pacific islands.

Ducker predicted New Zealand's health care IT industry, which has about 35 companies, will continue to grow, and he estimated its cumulative revenues will be more than $5.5 billion by 2010. Much of that revenue will come from export markets, Ducker said, 'because the New Zealand market is just too small.'

Opportunity abounds for Vodafone in New Zealand, Miller said. The company is already working on a program to transmit information to phones or personal digital assistants used by dentists in remote parts of the country, Miller said. It is also evaluating other projects to send vital information to mobile clinicians. Because of the success of the STOMP program, Miller said, Vodafone officials also want to launch other wellness programs, such as diet management.

If such projects work in New Zealand, Miller said, the potential is large for Vodafone affiliates worldwide.

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