While numerous reports warn of the dangers of text messaging related to driving, others suggest that texting can actually be healthy — especially for those without access to a regular doctor.

A study conducted in Boston that was released in early December found that text messaging was a low-cost way to encourage the daily use of sunscreen and, thus, reduced the risk of skin cancer. Sixty-nine percent of participants who signed up for reminder texts as part of the study reported they would continue using the service and 89 percent would recommend it to others.

Text messages also helped a small group of heavy drinkers curb their alcohol intake, according to another study out this week. Selected drinkers were sent weekly texts tallying their alcoholic beverages and received specific feedback on how best to cut down. Those receiving the feedback showed a decrease in the amount they drank.

The health benefits of texting are also evident outside the United States. HIV clinics in Kenya, for example, have helped patients adhere to their medication regimens with daily text messaging. Researchers have found that the texts erased barriers such as time-consuming clinic visits, limitations to medical access caused by political strife, or the stigma involved with visiting clinics identified for HIV-positive patients.

In the U.S., hospitals, medical centers and individual doctors are investigating how best to communicate with patients via texts, too. As a start, recently debuted software now allows health professionals to send private health information from cell phone to cell phone while keeping the information protected and encrypted.

Certain hospitals, like Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, have identified the special needs of underserved communities and narrowed the focus of their mobile communications solely on those patients.

Blacks and Latinos comprise a key community that can benefit from text-based medical intervention.
One in five African-Americans are uninsured compared to one out of ten whites. African-Americans are also more than two times as likely to rely on public health insurance programs such as Medicaid than whites.

Access to quality health care is limited for both blacks and Latinos. Given the fact that African-Americans and Hispanics each send more text messages than whites and Asians, these new efforts are promising as a means to help these medically disenfranchised populations.

Sending health-related texts also creates an opportunity to interact with medical professionals without fear of being judged based on race or class — which is often cited as a source of anxiety among patients of African descent.

In addition, texting can provide anonymity when discussing sensitive topics.

Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains in Denver currently answers sexual health questions from teens through text messages. Once a question is texted, experts reply within 24 hours.

Veterans considering suicide can reach the Department of Veteran Affairs’ Crisis Centers by text as well.

All the positive health benefits do not outweigh texting’s real dangers. Texting while driving has come under increasing scrutiny, as well as the reported increase in other texting-related accidents, such as texting while walking. Plus, frequent texting takes a toll on the texter’s sleep cycle and generates numerous aches and pains — namely, thumb, neck and back strains from constant micro-movements.

However, responsibly texting as a way of garnering health advice as these services become more available could serve as a way of bringing health and wellness professionals into contact with people who otherwise would remain underserved.