Digital health: Are devices a help in the quest for a healthier lifestyle?

It is odd. We live in an era in which technology has the answers to almost everything — ‘there’s an app for that’ etc. — and yet in terms of managing our own health the needle hasn’t moved forwards.

According to the Philips-commissioned Future Health Index survey of 25,000 patients across all age groups, many said they were not habitually monitoring key health indicators despite the proliferation of mobile and wearable devices making it easier to do so.

Less than half of surveyed patients said they regularly keep track of their weight and diet (47% and 42%, respectively) and only one-third (34%) regularly keep track of exercise routines. Around 75% of patients say they do manage their own health but 75% of doctors say they need to do more.

In summary, it has never been easier to track our own health, yet we are still not doing enough. This has much broader implications.

As healthcare changes from being a system that treats people once they are ill to one that revolves around patients, prevention, and the ongoing management of chronic conditions, the question of individual behavioral change leads to the much bigger question of how to promote healthy living in whole populations.

Today the global economic impact of the five leading chronic diseases — cancer, diabetes, mental illness, heart disease, and respiratory disease — could reach $47 trillion over the next 20 years. At least one in four people will be aged over 65 by 2050 in about two-thirds of OECD countries.

Longer lasting change

Changing the habits of a lifetime can be difficult. For many people the path to a healthier lifestyle can be two brisk steps forward followed by three steps back.

Why is that? We set unachievable targets for ourselves — goals that stretch beyond our will power — and stumble when the first serious obstacle gets in our way. This leads to relapsing. At the moment technology seems more focused on setting goals rather than progressively guiding and supporting consumers towards incremental change.

On top of that — and no surprises here — we all tend to view ourselves as much healthier than we actually are: McKinsey found 76 percent of survey participants with high-risk clinical conditions described themselves as being in excellent, very good, or good health. Of course.

Long-lasting change is most likely only going to happen when it’s self-motivated and rooted in positive thinking, experts say, rather than focusing on emotional triggers.

In an analysis of 129 studies of behavior change strategies, a British research group found that the least effective approaches relied on encouraging a sense of fear or regret. Smaller goals are proven to be easier to achieve if they are specific, so “I will climb the steps to work rather than get the lift” instead of “I will do more exercise”.

Goals should be limited too, so as not to overwork or stretch your attention and willpower, and be targeted and planned to achieve their aim.

Nudge to change

Small changes do work. The challenge is that health problems are now of such a huge scale. More than one-third (34.9% or 78.6 million) of U.S. adults are obese, which leads to conditions including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, some of the leading causes of preventable death.

A task force consisting of members of the American Society for Nutrition, the Institute of Food Technologists, and the International Food Information Council was established to consider whether a small-changes approach could be useful in addressing obesity. They found small lifestyle changes could lead to “increased self-efficacy and could stimulate people to make additional small changes” leading ultimately to more long-term positive changes.

The fact is that people need a gentle nudge in the right direction, to encourage them to set achievable goals; they need positive feedback as well as guidance and support — enabled by technology — but not all apps have reached this level of sophistication yet.

Empowering consumers to engage in their health and take control of their lifestyle choices is precisely what Philips’ connected personal health programs do. Data from our connected health devices — such as Philips’ health watch, digital blood pressure monitors and body analysis scale — supports the small lifestyle changes that make a big difference.

Via smartphone the Philips Sonicare toothbrush provides coaching tips and real-time feedback to help make the small changes needed to maintain your oral hygiene. Getting the right information at the right time helps make more informed decisions about your health.

Change is crucial — both for ourselves and populations — and the small steps to achieving long-term goals, through technologies which guide and support, can really make the difference.