(CNSNews.com) – A $509,840 grant by the National Institutes of Health will pay for a study that will send text messages in “gay lingo” to methamphetamine addicts to try to persuade them to use fewer drugs and more condoms. The study began in February.
Lead researcher Dr. Cathy Reback of the Baltimore-based Friends Research Institute, Inc., told CNSNews.com how she and her team of health educators will spend the next four years and over half a million dollars encouraging gay meth addicts to cut down on unprotected sex by periodically sending them “gay-specific” text messages.
“We did a pilot about four, five years ago with 52 out-of-treatment MSM (males who have sex with males),” Dr. Reback explained. “And we sent them text messages that were gay specific – used gay lingo – and made references to the connection between high-risk sex and methamphetamine use among MSM.”
The current study, she added, will test the effectiveness of using text messages to alter gay meth addicts’ behavior.
“So what I wanted to do with this text messaging intervention was to optimize the opportunity to get these guys [to have safer sex] by sending text messages as opposed to ‘Come into my brick and mortar site that’s ten miles from your house, and come for a group [session].’ I mean – you know – okay maybe!” Dr. Reback explained.
“We have the technology to go beyond these brick-and-mortar interventions where you sit down with a counselor and you sit down in a group. … You know, send them text messages as they’re walking into a bathhouse, or while they’re getting dressed in their home, or on the computer to hook up with somebody.”
According to the official description, the specific aims of the study are: “1) to determine differential immediate and sustained effects of transmitting theory-based text messages by PHE (TXT-PHE) versus by automation (TXT-Auto), compared to an assessment-only (AO) control condition among out-of-treatment, methamphetamine-using MSM for reductions of methamphetamine use and HIV sexual risk behaviors; and, 2) to determine the cost-effectiveness of TXT-PHE vs. TXT-Auto compared to AO for reducing methamphetamine use and HIV sexual risk behaviors.”
When CNSNews.com asked Dr. Reback for examples of the text messages, she denied our request on the grounds that such information could not be released until formally approved by the Friends Research Institutes’s institutional review board, which oversees research projects to make sure they follow ethical guidelines..
Requests to see the text messages sent in the pilot study conducted several years earlier were likewise denied – under the pretext that they are identical to the ones used in the current study. “I wish I could help, but they are the exact same text messages, as the RCT (randomized control trial) is an extension of the pilot,” Dr. Reback told CNSNews.com.
The study, entitled “Theory-based Text Messaging to Reduce Methamphetamine Use and HIV Risks among MSM,” will involve sending five “gay lingo” text messages a day to test subjects “at the exact time they are most likely to make high-risk sexual decisions.”
How will researchers know at exactly what times to tell the study’s subjects to forgo meth and unprotected sex?
“Well, we had focus groups before where we designed the intervention and part of the focus group was asking the individuals ‘When should we send these text messages?’… And they designed the times – they told us what times,” Dr. Reback said.
That means long nights and weekends at the office for her and her team, “times that people would be most likely going to the bars or going to bathhouses or going to sex clubs.”
Asked if she felt that such research should still be a priority in tough economic times, Dr. Reback told CNSNews.com: “Well, I don’t think saving lives is, you know, dispensable… I think that’s extremely important and I think it’s a huge public health benefit as well as a cost savings to the general public.”
The study, conducted by scientists at the Baltimore-based Friends Research Institute, Inc. – research body that studies drug-use, HIV/AIDS, and criminality – divides the 285 study participants into three groups:
In the first group, individuals will receive text messages five times daily by live researchers “that focus on meth use, high-risk sex and for those who are HIV positive,” says Dr. Reback. “Participants can communicate with us back and forth – messages are pushed and pulled, and there are text messaging conversations.”
Subjects will also receive a weekly self-evaluation report “where they will be able to give us feedback on meth use and high-risk sexual behaviors in the previous thirty days.”
In the second group, subjects are sent five automated text messages daily – but cannot communicate back and forth with researchers. They will also be texted the weekly self-evaluation report.
Subjects in the third group will receive only the weekly evaluation. Researchers will then compare all three groups’ evaluation reports to determine which consistently had the lowest rate of unprotected sex and drug use.
Asked if her cell phone plan includes unlimited text messaging, Dr. Reback said that it does.