Traditional approaches haven’t stemmed the growth of lifestyle-related diseases, but digital therapeutics show a promising path forward.

The persistent rise of lifestyle-related diseases remains a troubling global health trend. Today, conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular disease account for roughly 70 percent of deaths and health care costs worldwide. The good news is these conditions are preventable, often with moderate changes in diet and physical activity. The proliferation of smartphones also makes it possible for billions of people to find reliable health resources instantly.

The challenge is traditional health information is not very engaging. Behavioral research suggests the “emotional” part of the brain governs most lifestyle choices, like what to eat. As such, appeals to the “rational” part of the brain, like black-and-white nutrition labels, often fall short. What’s more, nearly half of adults struggle with health literacy. While information is more available, it may not be accessible or actionable for everyone.

Dr. Tryggvi Thorgeirsson and Dr. Saemundur Oddsson are working to change that. As co-founders of the digital therapeutics company SidekickHealth, the Icelandic physicians are combining clinical expertise with behavioral economics and mobile technology to improve people’s health.

“As medical doctors, we had treated thousands of patients who had or were at risk of lifestyle diseases,” said Thorgeirsson. “Our clinical advice would be a familiar refrain: eat well, get active, be mindful of stress, and take medication as prescribed. But the better option would have been to help shape the lifestyle choices that led people to our clinic or hospital in the first place.”

“We hypothesized that a mobile health engagement platform could support people with lifestyle change at scale,” said Oddsson. “Smartphones are almost ubiquitous, so the channel for intervention was clear. The key was to make it engaging for as many people as possible – not just the folks who were already interested in managing their health.”

Working with universities in Europe and the U.S., and bringing together a team of experienced game developers, Thorgeirsson and Oddsson created the SidekickHealth platform. With a text-light design and game-like experience, SidekickHealth enables users of different ages, backgrounds and levels of health literacy to take a more active role in their health.

Over the past two years, employers and health care providers have used SidekickHealth to engage their employees and patients at work, at home and everywhere in between. Users complete individual health missions and team challenges focused on nutrition, physical activity and stress. As they accumulate points for their progress, they earn motivating altruistic rewards, such as clean water donations to help children in need.

Hlynur Hauksson, an airline employee based in Reykjavik, Iceland, joined a SidekickHealth challenge as part of a three-week workplace wellness initiative. “It was fun, I was always earning points for veggies, water, workouts and even housework,” said Hauksson. “I started doing mindfulness exercises with my four-year-old, which gave us great quality time together. Plus, I lost five kilos.” After the wellness challenge, Hauksson continued using SidekickHealth as part a four-month lifestyle change program with a local health provider. He kept up his healthy habits throughout the summer, culminating in the completion of his first 21km run in the Reykjavík marathon.

The use of smartphones and gaming has shown promise in helping people overcome potential barriers to change. In a diabetes prevention program with participants who were over age 65 and had never used an app, SidekickHealth users averaged seven exercises per day, with 84 percent continuing in their program after four months. A similar program with a predominantly Spanish-speaking population averaged six exercises per day, with 83 percent retention.

“We collaborated with SidekickHealth because it makes our program scalable, allowing us to provide more diabetes prevention programs to those in need,” said Marlayna Bollinger, Founder and Executive Director of the Skinny Gene Project, a non-profit organization with a Diabetes Prevention Program recognized by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We can modify the program to make it culturally relevant and ensure information is not just received; it’s understood. In groups that are at high risk for diabetes, like Hispanics and Native Americans, SidekickHealth has been especially effective in helping people lower their risk for diabetes.”

By taking a new perspective on health engagement and empowering people with technology, a key indicator of global health may start moving in the right direction.

by Sean McNabb