Implementation of CycleTel Family Advice: an SMS-based service to provide family planning and fertility awareness information in India

Nicki Ashcroft, Victoria Shelus, Himanshu Garg, Courtney McLarnon-Silk, Victoria H. Jennings


Background: CycleTel Family Advice (CFA), an SMS-based service designed to improve knowledge of fertility and family planning (FP), was delivered to over 100,000 people in India from April to August 2015. The goal of CFA was to increase knowledge on a range of reproductive health topics, e.g., the menstrual cycle, fertility, and FP, and to increase positive perceptions and use of FP. This paper focuses on the best practices and operational challenges for providing an SMS service based on the implementation experience of CFA.
Methods: The implementation process for CFA was well documented, specifically program design, commercial partnerships, formative research, design of messages, and recruitment of users. The impact of CFA on knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors was assessed through phone surveys before and after message delivery.
Results: Programmatic data and phone surveys resulted in several operational findings, particularly in the areas of user behavior, partnership management, and mHealth research. While there were improvements in knowledge, there were not significant changes in FP use and couple communication.
Conclusions: The intervention yielded insights into designing an mHealth intervention as well as the opportunities and challenges of implementing a stand-alone SMS-based service with a broad audience. Lessons learned were that (I) SMS-based interventions, without other supporting systems, may not lead to high user engagement or behavior change; (II) partnerships with private sector technical platforms can help overcome the difficult problem of marketing and outreach, but they bring limitations to user interface and dependencies on a commercial structure; (III) collecting demographic data required to provide tailored content may be a barrier to user acquisition; and (IV) while phone surveys are useful for evaluation of mHealth interventions, reaching users is challenging and response rates are low.