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JMIR Mhealth Uhealth. 2019 Apr 9;7(4):e11720. doi: 10.2196/11720.

To Text or Not to Text: Electronic Message Intervention to Improve Treatment Adherence Versus Matched Historical Controls.

Author information

Stanford Prevention Research Center, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA, United States.
Department of Health Sciences, California State University, East Bay, Hayward, CA, United States.
Quantitative Sciences Unit, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA, United States.



Ensuring treatment adherence is important for the internal validity of clinical trials. In intervention studies where touch points decrease over time, there is even more of an adherence challenge. Trials with multiple cohorts offer an opportunity to innovate on ways to increase treatment adherence without compromising the integrity of the study design, and previous cohorts can serve as historical controls. Electronically delivered nudges offer low-cost opportunities to increase treatment adherence.


This study aimed to evaluate the effectiveness of electronic messages (e-messages) on treatment adherence to the last cohort of a parent weight loss intervention during the second half of a year-long trial, when intervention checkpoint frequency decreases. Treatment adherence is measured by intervention class attendance and adherence to the intervention diet.


All participants in the last cohort (cohort 5, n=128) of a large randomized weight loss study were offered an e-message intervention to improve participant adherence during the last 6 months of a 1-year weight loss program. Overall, 3 to 4 electronic weekly messages asked participants about intervention diet adherence. A propensity score model was estimated using 97 participants who opted to receive e-messages and 31 who declined in cohort 5 and used to pair match cohort 5 e-message participants to a historical control group from cohorts 1 to 4. Moreover, 88 participants had complete data, yielding 176 participants in the final analyses. After matching, intervention and matched control groups were compared on (1) proportion of class attendance between the 6 and 12 month study endpoints, (2) diet adherence, as measured by total carbohydrate grams for low-carbohydrate (LC) and total fat grams for low-fat (LF) diets at 12 months, and (3) weight change from 6 to 12 months. The dose-response relationship between the proportion of text messages responded to and the 3 outcomes was also investigated.


Compared with matched controls, receiving e-messages had no effect on (1) treatment adherence; class attendance after 6 months +4.6% (95% CI -4.43 to 13.68, P=.31), (2) adherence; LC -2.5 g carbohydrate, 95% CI -29.9 to 24.8, P=.85; LF +6.2 g fat, 95% CI -4.1 to 17.0, P=.26); or on (3) the secondary outcome of weight change in the last 6 months; +0.3 kg (95% CI -1.0 to 1.5, P=.68). There was a positive significant response correlation between the percentage of messages to which participants responded and class attendance (r=.45, P<.001).


Although this e-message intervention did not improve treatment adherence, future studies can learn from this pilot and may incorporate more variety in the prompts and more interaction to promote more effective user engagement. Uniquely, this study demonstrated the potential for innovating within a multicohort trial using propensity score-matched historical control subjects.





intervention; mobile health; propensity score; short message service; treatment adherence

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