TB persists despite being relatively easy to detect and cure because the journey from the onset of symptoms to cure involves a series of steps, with patients being lost to follow-up at each stage and delays occurring among patients not lost to follow-up. One cause of drop-off and delay occurs when patients delay or avoid returning to clinic to get their test results and start treatment.
We fielded two SMS interventions in three Cape Town clinics to see their effects on whether people returned to clinic, and how quickly. One was a simple reminder; the other aimed to overcome “optimism bias” by reminding people TB is curable and many millions die unnecessarily from it. Recruits were randomly assigned at the clinic level to a control group or one of the two SMS groups (1:2:2). In addition to estimating effects on the full sample, we also estimated effects on HIV-positive patients.
SMS recipients were more likely to return to clinic in the requested two days than the control group. The effect was smaller in the intent-to-treat analysis (52/101 or 51.5% vs. 251/405 or 62.0%, p = 0.05) than in the per-protocol analysis (50/97 or 51.5% vs. 204/318 or 64.2%, p = 0.03). The effect was larger among HIV-positives (10/35 or 28.6% vs. 97/149 or 65.1%, p<0.01). The effects of SMS messages diminished as the interval increased: significant effects at the 5% level were found at five and 10 days only among HIV-positives. The second SMS message had larger effects, albeit not significantly larger, likely due in part to lack of statistical power.
At 2 U.S. cents per message, SMS reminders are an inexpensive option to encourage TB testers to return to clinic, especially when worded to counter optimism bias.
Wagstaff, A., van Doorslaer, E. and Burger, R., 2019. SMS nudges as a tool to reduce tuberculosis treatment delay and pretreatment loss to follow-up. A randomized controlled trial. PloS one, 14(6), p.e0218527.