Text messaging service helps UW COVID study recruit hard-to-find volunteers

Woman looking at phone and thinking wow, I think I'm going to sign up for this Covid study!By Ignacio Lobos

When a group of UW Medicine researchers sought to quickly recruit and monitor COVID-19 survivors as part of a nationwide study, there was no easy way to reach them.

People are bombarded by emails, calls, instant messages, texts and social media postings, so getting someone to pay attention is a challenge, particularly if they haven’t been feeling well, said Rachel Geyer, a research scientist at UW Family Medicine and a member of the Inspire study at the UW. Inspire is an acronym that stands for Innovative Support for Patients with SARS-COV-2 Infections Registry.

Remote work conditions only added to the difficulty of recruiting volunteers, she said, and that’s why her team turned to UW Information Technology (UW-IT) for help.

During the height of the pandemic, UW-IT developed an online portal as a communications solution to reach people isolating from others and working remotely. The portal allows users to send and receive text messages from anywhere via UW campus phone numbers.

The application became known as UW-IT’s Text Messaging Service, available for UW faculty, staff, researchers and departments across the UW. After setting up  an account, users can easily create and manage their texts by accessing their portal through any of the most popular web browsers.

Geyer’s team quickly discovered that their text messages were getting traction recruiting volunteers.

“We often send a text, and we get a call right back,” she said. “We definitely get more traction with our texts than we do with emails.”

“By constantly sending short texts, we keep expanding our pool of volunteers, and we stay in constant contact with participants who are providing us with valuable data about ongoing symptoms,” she said.

The UW Inspire group has reached out to more than 15,000 potential participants via text and has enrolled about 1,600 people, which is about one-third of the total number of participants recruited across eight study sites in the U.S.

That the UW group has recruited the biggest number of participants speaks to the success of the strategy using the text messaging service.  In total, the UW Inspire group  has sent about 50,000 texts in the past year.

“We are averaging about 4,000 to 5,000 texts per month, and many of them are reminders to log on to our website and complete surveys,” said Mike Willis, a research assistant who works with Geyer in doing outreach to volunteers.

Willis said he has been impressed with the level of service from UW-IT’s Telecom Architecture and Engineering group, which worked closely with Inspire staff to build a secure, confidential, cloud-based personal health platform for recruiting and engaging with study participants.

“They built special features into our text messaging platform and helped us increase our overall outreach and recruitment,” he said. “They created a platform that is easy for people to use. And the platform made it possible to increase our overall contacts with volunteers without having to hire additional staff.”

The Inspire study is a multi-million dollar study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as part of a multidisciplinary effort to understand how COVID affects people over time.

UW researchers in family medicine and emergency medicine are among the recipients who were chosen to be part of the study, which includes other major universities across the U.S. In all, eight different groups are participating in the study.

The UW Inspire group is among one of UW-IT’s largest users of the texting service, said Mark Strand, Telecom Architecture and Engineering manager. And because they were one of the early adopters, their feedback has been invaluable in improving the service for a wide array of customers across the UW.

Strand credited Sam Osheroff, a UW-IT telecom operations engineer, for writing the code that made the service possible. As colleagues have pointed out, this type of work doesn’t typically fall under the purview of a telecom engineer. But the texting service clearly has had major benefits for the whole university.

And what the Inspire study is gathering so far will help better understand the long-term impacts of COVID, by matching symptoms that are being reported nationwide by so-called COVID long-haulers.

Lingering fatigue to extreme tiredness; loss of taste and smell; increased anxiety; they are just some of the symptoms that are being asked about, Geyer said.

“Ultimately, we want to use the data to understand what’s going on and how we can help patients who have been suffering from this virus,’’ said Geyer, whose group plans to continue to recruit more volunteers using the text messaging service through the fall.

More info:

UW-IT offers two text messaging services to the UW community. Find out which one is best for your unit or department.