PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Text-message “nudges” sent out to unvaccinated Rhode Islanders in late spring 2021 didn’t increase COVID-19 vaccine uptake, according to a new study led by researchers at Brown University’s Policy Lab.
But the researchers posit that the messages’ ineffectiveness was mostly due to their timing: By the time unvaccinated people in the Ocean State received the nudges, all state residents ages 16 and up had been eligible to get a shot for at least four weeks.
The study was published on Wednesday, April 6, in Nature, just seven months after researchers at the University of California Los Angeles published an influential study that found that text messages were effective at boosting vaccination rates early in 2021.
But the Policy Lab’s study — which analyzes the results of a text message campaign it carried out in partnership with the Rhode Island Department of Health — is far from a repudiation of those results, the authors said. Rather, it offers important additional information on when text-message vaccination campaigns work and when they don’t — takeaways that researchers say could be helpful to health officials across the United States as they work to keep Americans healthy and out of hospitals by promoting COVID-19 and influenza vaccine uptake.
“On the one hand, you could say, ‘What a bummer that these nudges don’t work a month after vaccinations become available to all adults,’” said Kevin Wilson, associate director of data science at the Policy Lab and a co-author of the study. “But on the other hand, we now have more information that can help people who are thinking seriously about how and when to make public health interventions. We’ve unlocked another piece of the puzzle.”
Collaborating to improve public health
Wilson said working with RIDOH on the text-message campaign was the latest in a series of collaborations with state health leaders. Since the Policy Lab’s founding in 2019, it has worked with the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, which houses RIDOH, to better understand the effectiveness of behavioral interventions targeting the opioid epidemic, and to help develop tools that could improve the state’s Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance programs. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Policy Lab staff collaborated with the state to design safe, efficient PCR testing facilities and helped leaders survey local residents to understand what behaviors they were implementing to keep their families safe, including social distancing, masking and testing.
In May 2021, RIDOH and the Policy Lab worked together to reach out to more than 140,000 Rhode Island residents who had been eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine for at least four weeks but had not yet received a shot, according to state records. After developing eight different text messages with information about the vaccine, the researchers and health officials sent the messages to most of the unvaccinated residents over the course of 13 days. Some unvaccinated residents were part of a control group that didn’t receive any messages.