There’s an App for That: Increasing Patient Engagement to Improve Health

_MG_4192 Caitlin Williams
18 June 2013
connect and coach
Connect & Coach links supermarket-based dietitians with customers who want to improve their eating habits, particularly those living with diabetes.

There are a number of exciting new technologies that make it easier for consumers to manage their health. But there is a dearth of products that engage people who need more of a push to develop and maintain a healthy lifestyle. We need to integrate health interventions into activities that people already do and inform better decision-making about how individuals can make small changes to improve their health status. The challenge to technology developers who really want to improve health is how to distill the consumer engagement principles of social media and put them to work to keep people involved in improving their own health.

This is particularly salient when it comes to non-communicable diseases, because the most promising interventions require a high-level of patient engagement. For example, diabetes can often be controlled through a combination of diet, exercise and the regulation of blood glucose levels, sometimes through the use of insulin. An app that allows diabetic patients to track all of these health indicators* is useful. But the constant monitoring of all of these indicators is a daunting task, and an app needs to make it easier for patients to track their progress, not harder.

This is the beauty of PHRQL’s (pronounced “freckle”) Connect & Coach, which uses the supermarket, not the doctor’s office, as the locus for behavior change. Connect & Coach links supermarket-based dietitians with customers who want to improve their eating habits, particularly those living with diabetes. The premise is that supermarkets are a better place to try to affect behavior change than doctors’ offices because most people go to the supermarket more frequently than they see a clinician and the supermarket is the place where they make decisions about what to eat. The Connect & Coach app pushes personalized nutrition information from the dietitian to the user’s phone, which sends an alert when it receives updates, much like the Facebook app. At mealtime, users do not need to manually log what they’re eating. Instead, they can upload a photo of their plate, which their dietitian then reviews. In doing so, Connect & Coach helps streamline the process of tracking nutrition, rendering it less onerous for patients.

The hope is that streamlining the tracking of health indicators – like caloric intake – into things that patients and caretakers are already doing – like buying and eating food– will encourage them to continue tracking, ultimately leading to better health. However, the most encouraging news on this front may come from Susannah Fox and Maeve Duggin whose recent study with the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 69% of American adults track at least one health indicator for themselves or a loved one and that 46% of these “trackers” say that tracking a health indicator has changed their overall approach to maintaining their health or the health of a loved one. Maybe the trick is not convincing people to track health indicators but helping them more effectively track those they already care about.

*Note: In this piece, the term “health indicator” is used to describe a piece of trackable health data, such as weight, diet and/or exercise patterns, medicine usage, etc.

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