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07 October 2013

Using Mobile Phones to Close the Referral Loop for Special Olympics Athletes

By Kristin Hughes, Senior Manager of Global Community Health Programs, Special Olympics International

Every day, all over the globe, people with intellectual disabilities (ID) are denied their basic human rights, denied access to health care, denied inclusion in their communities and schools, and, perhaps most importantly, denied the opportunity to reach their full potential.  From remote villages in rural Malawi, to top universities across the world, to YMCAs in New York and Kansas, Special Olympics Programs are working to transform the way communities, governments, businesses and sports address health for people with ID, so that they, too, can reach their full potential.

People with ID are one of the largest and most medically underserved disability groups. All over the world, this population is denied critical health services and education. The health disparity and lack of access to care is severe. People with ID are denied health services for a variety of reasons, including stigma, lack of understanding, lack of training of health care providers and fear. Special Olympics is working to address the access issue by training health care providers on how to work with people with ID, educating families and communities, advocating and providing health screenings and exams. 

Today, it is estimated there are almost more cell phones than people, and this technology can be a powerful tool in supporting access to care. Through the launch of Special Olympics Healthy Communities initiative in 2012, Special Olympics is utilizing health information systems to empower Special Olympics athletes, caregivers and coaches. This initiative provides them with the information they need to help improve health and well-being, while also establishing connections to ensure athletes have access to the health care they need by using mobile technology as a way to reach our athletes for follow up care and health promotion messages.

Special Olympics Romania employed Short Message Service (SMS) technology with much success this past winter. This pilot program involved sending automated SMS messages – or text messages – to Special Olympics athletes’ cell phones who received referrals at a Special Olympics dental health screening. Messages were sent at 8 and 12 weeks following the event to remind the athletes to schedule follow-up care. Two results stood out. Nearly all the athletes (94%) responded, indicating that texting is a very effective way to communicate with athletes. And, most importantly, of the athletes who had not received care at eight weeks, 22% made an appointment after receiving the text message reminder. By changing athletes’ behavior months after being screened, this technology provides enormous potential for improving the health status of athletes. SO_Centered-01
Special Olympics Romania SMS Pilot results:

  • 104 athletes screened, 54 were found to have dental problems and were recommended follow up care
  • 8 weeks after the event all 54 were sent a text message asking if they had booked their appointment; 94% responded to the text message 
  • 22% who had not previously booked appointments did so after receiving the text message, demonstrating significant behavior change

We should be able to guarantee that every person has access to adequate health care. We should be able to guarantee that people with ID are not discriminated against by health care systems and providers.  We should be able to insist that efforts to promote the health and education of children in the developing world should include all children.  And perhaps most importantly, we should insist that people with ID live free from humiliation, ridicule, stigma and are given the chance to reach their full potential. Special Olympics is just getting started using mobile technology but, with more than 4,000,000 athletes worldwide, it believes mobile phones are an important tool to help reach these goals and that this technology will increase access to care and improve the health of people with ID.

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