Original Research

A Novel Text Message Protocol to Improve Bowel Preparation for Outpatient Colonoscopies in Veterans

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Background: The current gold standard for screening for colorectal cancer is colonoscopy, a procedure that depends on the quality of bowel preparation. In 2016, the Veterans Health Administration introduced Annie, a text message service to improve health care communication with patients. The Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center conducted a prospective, single center study to measure the impact of Annie text messaging on patient satisfaction and quality of bowel preparation for patients undergoing outpatient colonoscopy.

Methods: Patients undergoing colonoscopy were divided into 2 groups. The control group received standardized patient education and a phone call prior to procedure. The intervention group, consisting of all patients who agreed to enroll, received a 6-day Annie text messaging protocol consisting of key bowel preparation steps that started 5 days prior to their scheduled procedure. Bowel preparation quality was measured using the Boston Bowel Preparation Scale (BBPS) score.

Results: During the study period, 688 veterans were scheduled for outpatient colonoscopy: 484 veterans were in the control group, 204 veterans were in the intervention group, and 126 were surveyed. Annie text messaging instructions were associated with a higher BBPS score (8.2) compared with usual care (7.8); P = .007 using independent t test, and P = .002 using parametric independent t test. Patients also reported satisfaction with the Annie text messaging service.

Conclusions: There was a statistically significant improvement in the average BBPS score in veterans receiving Annie text messages compared with the routine care control group for outpatient colonoscopies.



Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related death in both men and women.1 Colonoscopy is the current gold standard for screening due to the ability to remove precancerous lesions but remains highly dependent on the quality of bowel preparation.2 Poor bowel preparation has been associated with impaired adenoma detection as well as increased health care utilization due to the need for a repeat colonoscopy.3

Multiple patient factors are associated with increased risk of poor bowel preparation, including age > 60 years, male sex, diabetes mellitus, and presence of a mental health diagnosis, factors that are prevalent among the veteran population.3-5 Text messages have been shown to improve the quality of bowel preparation by increasing patients' understanding and adherence with the preparation process. Improved adherence with bowel preparation directions is associated with a cleaner colon prior to colonoscopy, leading to a thorough examination. Studies using text messaging instructions prior to colonoscopies have also shown measurable improvement in adenoma detection rate, patient preparation-associated discomfort, and completion of colonoscopy.6-10

In 2016, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) introduced Annie, one of the first automated text messaging services, named after Army Lieutenant Annie Fox, the first woman to receive the Purple Heart for combat. The Annie platform allows for notifications, instructions, and simple data collection. The development of this platform allows VHA practitioners to engage and educate veterans in a similar way to other health care systems using text messaging protocols. Annie text messages have been piloted for the use of hepatitis C treatment, demonstrating promise of improved medication adherence and patient satisfaction.11 We aimed to develop and pilot the Annie bowel preparation protocol to improve the quality of colonoscopy bowel preparation for outpatients at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center (MVAMC) in Minnesota. A secondary goal included measuring patient satisfaction with the text messaging instructions for outpatient colonoscopy preparation.


We conducted a single center, prospective, endoscopist-blinded, study with two 3-month long Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycles to improve the text messaging bowel preparation protocol at MVAMC between January 2019 and April 2020. The MVAMC Institutional Review Board determined the quality improvement project was exempt. Veterans who had outpatient colonoscopies scheduled were included. Veterans undergoing inpatient colonoscopies or outpatients who could not be reached to obtain informed consent, lacked text message capability, declined participation, or required extended colonoscopy preparation were excluded. Per MVAMC procedures, extended colonoscopy preparation was provided to patients receiving general or monitored anesthesia care, with a history of poor bowel preparation, or with risk factors for poor preparation as determined by the ordering health care professional (HCP). Standard bowel preparation involves ingestion of 4 L of polyethylene glycol 3350 with electrolytes; extended bowel preparation requires ingestion of an additional 2 L to total 6 L and uses a different set of instructions. Additionally, the patient population requiring extended bowel preparation also includes patients with spinal cord injuries, who often are admitted for assistance with extended preparation. Patients who consented to receiving text messages were placed in the Annie intervention group, and all others were placed in the control group.

The control group received standardized patient education, including a mailed copy of bowel preparation instructions and a phone call from a gastroenterology service nurse about 1 to 2 weeks before the procedure. Current MVAMC standard of care involves a phone call from a nurse to confirm that patients have received the polyethylene glycol preparation solution, the mailed instructions, have an escort and transportation, and to answer any questions. Both the usual care and intervention group received the phone call. During this call, the Annie text messaging bowel preparation protocol was introduced; if the veteran chose to participate, consent and enrollment were completed.

At enrollment, patient information was manually extracted from the Computerized Patient Record System (CPRS) and entered into Annie. A brief consent note was entered in the patient’s chart acknowledging that text messages are a one-way communication and standard payment rates apply. The intervention group received a 6-day Annie text messaging protocol consisting of key standard bowel preparation steps that started 5 days before the scheduled procedure. Details of the text message script are available in the Appendix.


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