McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

Texting the way to better health in indigenous communities

by Matt Terry
Published: November 24, 2010
Michael Mak
Michael Mak, a third-year health sciences student specializing in global health, is piloting DiabeTEXTs, an SMS text messaging system meant to keep those with diabetes in contact with health care providers.

Michael Mak wants to help diabetes sufferers in Canada's First Nations communities better cope with the disease — so he's sending them text messages.

Currently working in the northwestern Ontario town of Sioux Lookout, where he is helping the Keewaytinook Okimakanak, a non-political chiefs council, develop IT resources with First Nation partners. Mak, a third-year health sciences student, has seen the devastating effects diabetes has on patients in indigenous communities. He has also experienced the frustrating lack of internet connectivity in those same communities — a problem which can keep aboriginal patients from easily accessing information on how to live with diabetes.

To bridge the gap between knowledge and technology, Mak decided to harness the power of the cell phone, which is more common in indigenous communities than high speed internet. By utilizing an SMS text messaging system that allows health care workers to communicate with patients who suffer from diabetes, Mak feels the standard of living for those living with the disease would improve.

"We focus so much on ensuring that the quality of Canadian health care is high, but health care in First Nations communities is completely off the radar," said Mak. "This sort of technology can help connect those living with diabetes with health care professionals who can help them better understand how to treat the disease."

His system, DiabeTEXTs, is currently being piloted in a number of northern Ontario First Nations communities, where diabetes workers are now armed with cell phones and a computer software program that allows them to send text message reminders and health tips to patients and, one day, could allow patients to schedule their own appointments or ask specific questions.

"I learned about some of the major issues facing Canada's First Nations communities in an elective course I took, and I became very concerned," said Mak. "By working in this area I really hope to challenge students to better understand those issues and develop ways to solve them."

Mak's idea recently made him the first McMaster student to win the Agfa HealthCare Innovation Challenge, which this year asked students to come up with a solution to a current challenge associated with universal access, privacy and ease of use pertaining to disease diagnosis, medical treatment and overall healthcare management.

One of more than 60 proposals from across the province, Mak's submission earned him his choice of a $3,000 scholarship or a summer job with Agfa.

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