Mobile phone technology could be an effective means to promote improved health practices among Cambodia’s female entertainment workers and help curb the spread of HIV, according to a new study conducted by the organisation KHANA and the Center for Global Health Research at Touro University in California.
The ubiquity of mobile phones in Cambodia makes it increasingly easy for health-related texts and voice messages to reach at-risk populations, the study found. In 2015, the number of mobile phones in Cambodia exceeded the country’s population by about 6 million.
Fifty-one percent of the country’s female entertainment workers, a population identified as at risk of contracting HIV due to their frequent involvement in sex work, said they send text messages daily.
Almost all of the women surveyed, 98 percent, also said they feel comfortable receiving private, health-related messages despite the fact that many share their phones with others.
“While most participants did not have a passcode or lock, most report being somewhat comfortable to very comfortable with receiving health information in text messages on their phone,” the study found. “Most of the participants had positive remarks about potential health message interventions.”
According to Tia Phalla, deputy director of the National AIDS Authority, mobile phone messages have the potential to educate at-risk populations about ways to prevent HIV.
“We want to eliminate HIV by 2025, and we think mobile phones could be a part of that,” Phalla said.
A systematic review of text-messaging health projects published by the US National Library of Medicine found that the majority of text-message interventions have “statistically significant positive effects on health outcomes and/or behaviors”.
But not everyone was as optimistic about the potential of these interventions to work for Cambodia’s female entertainment workers.
Sar Mora, president of the Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation, said he encountered little success when trying to use mobile technologies to rally female entertainment workers around labour issues.
“We tried to develop applications to let them report violations and problems at the workplace, but that didn’t work very well,” Mora said.
“I think one of the problems is literacy. A lot of entertainment workers cannot read and write, so they have trouble using the technology.”
The study acknowledges low literacy rates among entertainment workers, noting that voice messages may be preferable to text in many cases.