A simple mobile phone can make a world of difference.

A mobile phone offers the gifts of communication and connectedness to those who are otherwise separated from people, and caregivers, and can make a positive difference in their lives. The ability to be in touch with health care providers can yield real benefits both medically and socially.

The Contra Costa Health Services CommunityConnect Program in Contra Costa County, California, east of San Francisco, is seeing those benefits come to life among Medi-Cal beneficiaries enrolled in the county’s case management program.

More than 700 people in need have been given basic Sprint-provided Samsung smartphones as part of the grant-funded project, to gauge how improved communication can improve the lives of those disadvantaged patients and help them take better care of themselves.

What originally drove the project was a simple idea: if case managers could reliably and consistently connect with their patients, they could make sure they keep their regular medical appointments and reduce the demand for emergency and in-patient services. Those services are vastly more expensive than regular office care, so the county was also looking at ways it might reduce costs.

At the same time, the patients would benefit, since whatever their ailments, they would get regular treatment and not reach a point where emergency services or hospital admissions were necessary.

“We wanted a program that would help address some of the barriers that our patients may be facing in receiving regular primary patient care,” explained Rachael Birch, program administrator “Obviously, communication can be a major barrier for many vulnerable populations within our county. Low income, homelessness, and mental illness are some of the things we struggle with in case management when we try to get in touch with our clients.”

Despite the county’s comprehensive medical records system, case managers are stymied when they can’t reach patients on a regular basis.

“The idea of providing cell phones to them came up naturally, and our technology department reached out to Sprint and other vendors. This is a grant program, so we don’t have a ton of money, and we wanted to see what kind of package we could arrange,” Birch explained.

Sprint put together an extremely low-cost solution, providing Samsung mid-tier smartphones to the county, at an ongoing cost of just $12 per month per mobile phone.

The phones are pre-loaded with certain key applications, ranging from medication reminders to online connections with medical providers, suicide prevention web sites, government health services information, and public transit information to help the mobile phone users get to critical medical appointments. The phones are managed through Sprint Mobile Device Management, to manage certain aspects of their usage and for the ability to disable them if they are lost or stolen.

The program is still too young to offer much insight into the effect on emergency room and hospital in-patient usage, but CommunityConnect is seeing a significant beneficial impact on the rates of engagement between patients and case managers as well as the use of the phones by patients to communicate with their medical providers.

There are other benefits as well. For example, there are patients who have been successful in finding a job when they couldn’t previously. Without a phone and a way for employers to contact them, they had been held back from job hunting.

The mobile phone project, Birch says, “is working very well. The case managers love that they can so easily reach their patients. And because we are part of an integrated health system, the phone numbers are being entered into the patients’ health care records, which is then accessible to our hospital system, our health centers, our emergency department, our psychiatric emergency program, and our behavioral health system. We’re really opening the door for the entire community health care system to be able to reach that patient.”

The project is designed to provide patients with mobile phone service for six months, as a path to sustaining themselves. The idea isn’t to just provide a free phone, but to guide the patient to greater self-sufficiency. For certain cases, of course, the service can be extended beyond that time limit.

CommunityConnect, which is funded by the California Department of Health Care Services as part of the Whole Person Care Pilot Program, is continuing to deliver mobile phones to those who need them and to monitor the ongoing success of the program1.

1 https://www.dhcs.ca.gov/services/Pages/WholePersonCarePilots.aspx