Harnessing digital technology for health behaviour change

Posted by s.hettrick on 1 April 2015 - 4:33pm

By Bob Patton, Lecturer in clinical psychology, University of Surrey.

UCL Centre for Behaviour Change (CBC) Conference 2015 was a two-day conference held at Senate House (London) to bring together experts from behavioural science, computer science, engineering and  human/computer interaction. The primary key note presentation was from Professor Bonnie Spring of Northwestern University, who discussed how an over reliance upon technology focused solution can be de-motivating, lead to reduced self efficacy and higher attrition rates from treatment programmes.

In the context of Precision Medicine – a term used to describe treatment applied to “the right patient, in the right place, at the right time” – we should be seeking to optimise our interventions, rather than to take a scatter gun approach and throw everything (including the kitchen sink) at trying to change behaviour. Perhaps the smartest thing that was said was the “ Widgets don’t in themselves change behaviour; its the underlying principals that count”. As an example Prof. Spring demonstrated a successful intervention using an old palm pilot (i.e. no graphics, limited functionality). The lesson here is to pay attention to the function  - there is a lot of robust theory relating to behaviour change, and we should try to use this in our attempts to digitise successful real-world applications.

For those of us trying to develop apps that may be used in health care, a representative from Public Health England revealed that the NHS would soon be announcing an endorsement model for software, which would be made available through the NHS Choices web portal. Potential linkage to patients health records would also feature as part of this system, allowing apps to be prescribed by general practitioners and then accessed by patients via native and web based platforms. The potential for improved health care as well as real time health monitoring and rapid response is massive. Public Health England currently manages 176 health related websites, 100’s of online tools and 1000’s of data access points. A joined up system that utilised endorsed software could be a powerful asset to the healthcare system.

The Global Institute for Digital Health Excellence (GLIDHE) was launched on day two of the conference. This is a partnership between BUPA and University College London (Centre for Behaviour Change and Computer Science department). The focus of this new hybrid is on the consumerising and marketing of behavioural change applications, via their own digital health agent platform facilitating what they call hyper personalisation (meaning a mixed methods approach to targeting consumers via text, calls , email or web interface). BUPA are quick to remind us that they are on a mission to achieve health for all, and that these advances in health care delivery would be freely available worldwide. The first iteration of the GLIDHE partnership is BUPAQuit – a re-imagined upgrade of the SF28 stop smoking programme (developed at the UCL / CBC). BUPA brings scalability to the table, and this app will be rolled out in India (where there are more smokers than citizens of the USA and Europe combined). At this time BUPA have not decided on whether to make the software OpenSource, but they have not ruled out the possibility... The good news for developers is that GLIDHE will consider pitches from developers and researchers who want to work on the programme, offering to bypass traditional peer review processes if the proposals match GLIDHE principals. Master’s and Doctoral level studentships will also form part of this brave new world of academia and industry partnership. You can learn more about GLIDHE and how the industry / academia partnership will work here.

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