Text Messages to Support Caregivers in a Health Care System: Development and Pilot and National Rollout Evaluation

J Particip Med. 2022 Oct 17;14(1):e35318. doi: 10.2196/35318.


Background: Although there are many interventions to support caregivers, SMS text messaging has not been used widely.

Objective: In this paper, we aimed to describe development of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Annie Stress Management SMS text messaging protocol for caregivers of veterans, its pilot test, and subsequent national rollout.

Methods: The stress management protocol was developed with text messages focusing on education, motivation, and stress-alleviating activities based on the Resources for Enhancing All Caregivers Health (REACH) VA caregiver intervention. This protocol was then tested in a pilot study. On the basis of the pilot study results, a national rollout of the protocol was executed and evaluated. Caregivers were referred from VA facilities nationally for the pilot and national rollout. Pilot caregivers were interviewed by telephone; national rollout caregivers were sent a web-based evaluation link at 6 months. For both evaluations, questions were scored on a Likert scale ranging from completely disagree to completely agree. For both the pilot and national rollout, quantitative data were analyzed with frequencies and means; themes were identified from open-ended qualitative responses.

Results: Of the 22 caregivers in the pilot study, 18 (82%) provided follow-up data. On a 5-point scale, they reported text messages had been useful in managing stress (mean score 3.8, SD 1.1), helping them take care of themselves (mean score 3.7, SD 1.3), and making them feel cared for (mean score 4.1, SD 1.7). Texts were easy to read (mean score 4.5, SD 1.2), did not come at awkward times (mean score 2.2, SD 1.4), were not confusing (mean score 1.1, SD 0.2), and did not cause problems in responding (mean score 1.9, 1.1); however, 83% (15/18) of caregivers did not want to request an activity when stressed. Consequently, the national protocol did not require caregivers to respond. In the national rollout, 22.17% (781/3522) of the eligible caregivers answered the web-based survey and reported that the messages had been useful in managing stress (mean score 4.3, SD 0.8), helping them take care of themselves (mean score 4.3, SD 0.8) and loved ones (mean score 4.2, SD 0.8), and making them feel cared for (mean score 4.5, SD 0.8). Almost two-thirds (509/778, 65.4%) of the participants tried all or most of the strategies. A total of 5 themes were identified. The messages were appreciated, helped with self-care, and made them feel less alone, looking on Annie as a friend. The caregivers reported that the messages were on target and came when they were most needed and did not want them to stop. This success has led to four additional caregiver texting protocols: bereavement, dementia behaviors and stress management, (posttraumatic stress disorder) PTSD behaviors, and taking care of you, with 7274 caregivers enrolled as of February 2022.

Conclusions: Caregivers reported the messages made them feel cared for and more confident. SMS text messaging, which is incorporated into clinical settings and health care systems, may represent a low-cost way to provide useful and meaningful support to caregivers.

Keywords: burden of illness; emotional stress; family caregivers; mHealth; mobile health; mobile phone; self-care; self-efficacy; veterans.