Mobile text messaging and medication monitors (medication monitor boxes) have the potential to improve adherence to tuberculosis (TB) treatment and reduce the need for directly observed treatment (DOT), but to our knowledge they have not been properly evaluated in TB patients. We assessed the effectiveness of text messaging and medication monitors to improve medication adherence in TB patients.
Methods and Findings
In a pragmatic cluster-randomised trial, 36 districts/counties (each with at least 300 active pulmonary TB patients registered in 2009) within the provinces of Heilongjiang, Jiangsu, Hunan, and Chongqing, China, were randomised using stratification and restriction to one of four case-management approaches in which patients received reminders via text messages, a medication monitor, combined, or neither (control). Patients in the intervention arms received reminders to take their drugs and reminders for monthly follow-up visits, and the managing doctor was recommended to switch patients with adherence problems to more intensive management or DOT. In all arms, patients took medications out of a medication monitor box, which recorded when the box was opened, but the box gave reminders only in the medication monitor and combined arms. Patients were followed up for 6 mo. The primary endpoint was the percentage of patient-months on TB treatment where at least 20% of doses were missed as measured by pill count and failure to open the medication monitor box. Secondary endpoints included additional adherence and standard treatment outcome measures. Interventions were not masked to study staff and patients. From 1 June 2011 to 7 March 2012, 4,292 new pulmonary TB patients were enrolled across the 36 clusters. A total of 119 patients (by arm: 33 control, 33 text messaging, 23 medication monitor, 30 combined) withdrew from the study in the first month because they were reassessed as not having TB by their managing doctor (61 patients) or were switched to a different treatment model because of hospitalisation or travel (58 patients), leaving 4,173 TB patients (by arm: 1,104 control, 1,008 text messaging, 997 medication monitor, 1,064 combined). The cluster geometric mean of the percentage of patient-months on TB treatment where at least 20% of doses were missed was 29.9% in the control arm; in comparison, this percentage was 27.3% in the text messaging arm (adjusted mean ratio [aMR] 0.94, 95% CI 0.71, 1.24), 17.0% in the medication monitor arm (aMR 0.58, 95% CI 0.42, 0.79), and 13.9% in the combined arm (aMR 0.49, 95% CI 0.27, 0.88). Patient loss to follow-up was lower in the text messaging arm than the control arm (aMR 0.42, 95% CI 0.18–0.98). Equipment malfunction or operation error was reported in all study arms. Analyses separating patients with and without medication monitor problems did not change the results. Initiation of intensive management was underutilised.
This study is the first to our knowledge to utilise a randomised trial design to demonstrate the effectiveness of a medication monitor to improve medication adherence in TB patients. Reminders from medication monitors improved medication adherence in TB patients, but text messaging reminders did not. In a setting such as China where universal use of DOT is not feasible, innovative approaches to support patients in adhering to TB treatment, such as this, are needed.
Current Controlled Trials, ISRCTN46846388
In a cluster-randomized controlled trial, Katherine Fielding and colleagues examine the effectiveness of electronic reminders for improving tuberculosis medication adherence.
Tuberculosis—a contagious bacterial disease that usually infects the lungs—is a major global public health problem. Every year, about 9 million people develop tuberculosis and at least 1.3 million people die as a result. Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the organism that causes tuberculosis, is spread in airborne droplets when people with tuberculosis cough or sneeze. The symptoms of tuberculosis include cough, weight loss, and fever. Diagnostic tests for tuberculosis include sputum smear microscopy (microscopic analysis of mucus coughed up from the lungs), the growth of M. tuberculosis from sputum samples, and chest X-rays. Tuberculosis can be cured by taking antibiotics daily for several months (usually isoniazid, rifampicin, ethambutol, and pyrazinamide for two months followed by isoniazid and rifampicin for a further four months), but the emergence of multidrug-resistant M. tuberculosis is making tuberculosis increasingly hard to treat.
Why Was This Study Done?
Because tuberculosis treatment is long and unpleasant, patients often fail to take all their drugs. To improve medication adherence, the World Health Organization recommends that health care workers supervise patients while they take their medication (directly observed treatment, DOT). However, DOT can be hard to implement. In China, for example, where 11% of tuberculosis cases occur, DOT cannot be implemented in many parts of the country, and the national tuberculosis control policy permits self-administered treatment and treatment monitored by family members. It is estimated that over half of individuals with tuberculosis in China self-administer their treatment, but, in 2010, 20% of patients treated using nationally recommended case-management approaches were lost to follow-up or failed to take their medications regularly. In this pragmatic cluster-randomized trial, the researchers investigate whether reminders delivered by mobile phone or by medication monitor boxes (which provide audio reminders to patients and record when the box is opened) might improve tuberculosis medication adherence in China. A pragmatic trial asks whether an intervention works under real-life conditions; a cluster-randomized trial randomly assigns groups of people (here, people living in different counties/districts) to receive alternative interventions and compares outcomes in the differently treated “clusters.”
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers assigned people newly diagnosed with tuberculosis in counties/districts to receive reminders about taking their antibiotics and about monthly follow-up visits via text messaging, a medication monitor, or both text messaging and a medication monitor (the intervention arms), or to receive standard nationally recommended care without electronic reminders (the control arm). All the trial participants (about 1,000 per arm) took their drugs out of a medication monitor box, but the box’s audio reminder function was switched off in the text messaging only and control arms. In the intervention arms, doctors were advised to switch participants with poor medication adherence (evaluated at follow-up visits) to either more intensive management or DOT, depending on the level of missed treatment doses. Compared to the control arm, the percentage of patient-months with at least 20% of the drug doses missed (called “poor adherence” and measured by pill counts and data from the medication monitor) was not significantly reduced in the text messaging arm, whereas poor adherence was significantly reduced by 42% and 51% in the medication monitor and the combined arms, respectively (a significant reduction is unlikely to have happened by chance). Notably, fewer patients were switched to intensive management or DOT than expected based on medication adherence evaluations.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings show that, in China, the use of an electronic medication monitor box to remind patients to take their anti-tuberculosis drugs improved medication adherence. Interestingly, text messaging alone, which has been shown to improve adherence to antiretroviral therapy among HIV-positive individuals, did not improve medication adherence among patients with tuberculosis, possibly because the messages were too frequent or too impersonal, although this intervention (but none of the others) did reduce patient loss to follow-up. Battery problems with the medication monitor may have resulted in over-estimation of poor adherence to treatment. Moreover, the researchers’ assumption that opening the medication monitor box is synonymous with taking the medication may have introduced some inaccuracies into these findings. Despite these limitations and the underuse of more intensive case management in patients with poor adherence, these findings suggest that using medication monitors to deliver electronic drug reminders to patients might improve medication adherence among patients with tuberculosis in China and in other settings.
This list of resources contains links that can be accessed when viewing the PDF on a device or via the online version of the article at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001876.
This study is further discussed in a PLOS Medicine
Perspective by John Metcalfe, Max R. O’Donnell, and David R. BangsbergThe World Health Organization provides information (in several languages) on tuberculosis and on its Directly Observed Treatment Short Course (DOTS) strategy; the Global Tuberculosis Report 2014 provides information about tuberculosis around the worldThe Stop TB Partnership is working towards tuberculosis elimination and provides personal stories about tuberculosis (in English and Spanish); the Tuberculosis Vaccine Initiative (a not-for-profit organization) also provides personal stories about tuberculosisThe US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information about tuberculosis and about treatment for tuberculosis (in English and Spanish)The US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases also has detailed information on all aspects of tuberculosisMedlinePlus has links to further information about tuberculosis (in English and Spanish)More information about this trial is available