Smartphones fight ‘fast thinking’ to boost health outcomes

A wide range of chronic diseases can be prevented and better managed with smartphones, according to a white paper published by SidekickHealth Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Dr. Tryggvi Thorgeirsson and Dr. Ichiro Kawachi, Professor and Chairman of the Department of Social & Behavioral Sciences at Harvard University. The Sidebar takes a look at how mobile devices can be used to help people make healthy decisions.

As noted in the white paper, the bad news is that non-communicable diseases are the world’s biggest killer, posing an escalating threat to health and wellbeing. In today’s modern world, lifestyle choices are contributing to this inexorable rise in prevalence of conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.

The good news? As these diseases are driven by choices such as diet and exercise, people can make a difference by taking the right path to a healthy lifestyle.

While some people may see technology as a driver for bad lifestyle choices, the answer to the problem could be within the smartphones and digital devices that have come to dominate our lives.

Thorgeirsson and Kawachi point out that lifestyle choices often become entrenched because of ‘fast thinking’, decisions taken on the spur of the moment that in themselves may seem fairly innocuous but that can cumulatively lead an individual on the path to serious illness.

Fast thinking occurs because of the brain’s natural tendency towards mental shortcuts, a trait that in the past may have allowed people to avoid danger in tricky situations.

But today the targeting of those same mental shortcuts by advertisers can lead to unhealthy behavior. So, the authors argue, it’s important for public health authorities to find ways to promote ‘slow thinking.’

Stress, multi-tasking and other demands on cognitive processes may also increase use of fast thinking and adversely affect lifestyle choices, leading to increasingly impulsive and emotionally controlled behavior.

The answer to the problem is in the title of the white paper – SidekickHealth: A Behavioral-Economics Based Mobile-Health Application.

Image: Dr. Tryggvi Thorgeirsson, Sidekick’s CEO and guest lecturer at Harvard University.

Commitment contracts

Part of the problem with fast thinking behavior is a tendency to place higher value on the present than the future. This is also the dominant approach to healthcare, as the spending on prevention remains only a fraction of the funds allocated for treatment.

Healthy behaviors usually involve costs or efforts in the present for benefits in the future – but it’s not always easy to appreciate these benefits.

This is where a mobile app-driven approach can help; it can provide a framework that helps to overcome the desire for immediate gratification and can help users value the long-term benefits. One example is a commitment contract that allow users to pre-commit to lifestyle choices such as quitting smoking.

Using a mobile app helps to create situations, where users feel instant benefits for healthy behavior instead, promoting self-monitoring to ensure people stick to the promise outlined in their contracts.

The purpose of mobile apps, such as Sidekick’s multi-therapeutic area platform, is to frame healthy behavior in a positive manner, instead of as an obligation to meet recommendations.

 

Trial design

The papar outlines the design of the trial used to test whether Sidekick’s app could help to keep people on the right track towards a healthier life.

Based on the idea that social networks could reinforce positive behavior, the trial enrolled participants using the app at a private health clinic from September 2015 to April 2016.

Sidekick’s app worked by getting participants to sign up to a “commitment contract,” with an added supporter who can follow up on progress.

There were 47 active participants, who were compared with a control group of 24 patients. The average age of participants was 48 years, with age ranging from 19 to 70 years, 80.5% of those on the trial were married or in a relationship, and 94.4% were female.

The trial formed part of the pre-launch testing phase for Sidekick’s app-based technology, which has since been used to create custom, gamified digital therapeutics for the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries.

 

Solid results

After a univariate analysis, results showed that the intervention group consumed sweets 54.7% less frequently at study-end compared with the control group, while a significant difference was not present at baseline.

The intervention group showed a 65% reduction in sugary soda consumption at study-end compared with the baseline, while a significant change was not seen for the control group.

Data show a significant correlation between total activity points on the Sidekick platform and the frequency of physical activity, frequency of vegetable and fruit consumption and consumption of berries.

Finally, the intervention group had an almost 42% reduction in body fat, as measured by bioelectric impedance, compared to the control group.

 

Untapped potential

With chronic diseases still on the rise, there is a pressing need to prevent or better manage lifestyle-related illnesses. The current bricks-and-mortar approach is unstainable and mobile applications, such as digital therapeutic solutions (DTx), are increasingly becoming more mainstream.

Last year, Germany passed a ground-breaking legislation, where doctors can prescribe DTx solutions that have been proven to have a beneficial effect against diseases or conditions in clinical trials.

There is a clear consensus is that DTx solutions are gathering critical mass and a recent report by the Business Insider’s intelligence unit forecasts that a multi-billion-dollar industry is emerging.

And Sidekick is leading the field by using science and behavioral economics principles to motivate and aid users to change their behavior for the better and vastly improve health outcomes.