Lifestyle improvement through technology

The goal is to develop a digital lifestyle coach that can help you change unhealthy habits.

Illustration: Colourbox.com

Your lifestyle affects your health. An unhealthy diet, smoking, alcohol, substance abuse and gambling addiction – how you choose to live your life will affect both your quality of life, and potential diseases that might kill you.

Luckily, it is possible to change unhealthy lifestyle choices.

Researchers at the Norwegian Centre for Addiction Research (SERAF) are now developing an SMS and web based computer programme, which gives you guidance and monitors your health.

– The goal of this project is to develop a digital lifestyle coach that can help people change unhealthy behaviours. In the long term, I believe these kinds of programmes will be so widespread and effective that they will result in a significant improvement in public health, researcher Håvar Brendryen says.

One programme for all health-related behaviours

Researcher Håvar Brendryen. Photo: Øystein Horgmo, UiO
Researcher Håvar Brendryen. Photo: Øystein Horgmo, UiO

A large number of Norwegians have behavioural patterns that can potentially be a health risk to them over time. For over a decade, SERAF has shown how online health programmes can have positive effects on certain behaviours, particularly for smoking and alcohol use.

–We are now going to develop a solution where we are using one single programme for several types of behavioural change. In addition, we will offer more individually customized content and feedback compared to previous programmes, Brendryen explains.

The programme under development builds on technical solutions and content developed as part of a previous SERAF project. The programme has been undergoing testing by close to 500 users in Norway and the Czech Republic.

– It is vital for the programme to be attractive enough or acceptable to use for the largest proportion of the public as possible. Yet even though we are aiming for a broad reach, we also wish to reach narrower and particularly vulnerable groups, such as drug users, he says. 

An interactive dialogue

To achieve this, the researchers have set out to develop an eHealth programme.

– We are building a fully automatized programme that communicates with you online and via e-mail and SMS. The contents tailors according to your needs, the researcher says.

The treatment is set up to be an interactive dialogue between you and the programme.

– The programme speaks directly to you. It uses personal pronouns and asks you questions. Your answers helps shape the content you see later, he explains.

The basis of the programme is classical counselling techniques, already established in the fields of psychology and behavioural change.

– We are using an established, well recognized and widely used counselling technique called motivational interview. We also apply elements from cognitive behavioural therapy and relapse prevention, Brendryen says.

The treatment plan will consist of an initial information-gathering conversation, followed by a series of follow-up talks. Your treatment plan will adjust along the way according to your preferences and progress – or possible relapse.

An initiative that may reach many

Few initiatives are available on a personal level for the major public health problems in Norway.

– Beyond giving general public health advice, few public initiatives exist for helping individuals to change their health related behaviours, at least in terms of initiatives to reach a large number of people, says the researcher.

This is because the cost associated with treating large sections of the population are more expensive than what society gets from improved public health. If every person with an unhealthy lifestyle receives treatment based on the traditional approaches such as therapy, things would get very expensive.

– While the spending on health initiatives increases annually, people are arguing that this increase is not financially sustainable. One solution could be initiatives that reach a great number of people at a low cost, but are efficient enough to achieve a beneficial impact on the broader public health or amongst smaller groups of people, says Brendryen.

The same challenges irrespective of their behaviour

One of the main advantages of this programme is that it deals with behavioural change in general, rather than focusing on, for example, the different types of behaviour and their medical consequences.

– Changing one’s behaviour or unhealthy lifestyle is associated with many of the same challenges and milestones, irrespective of which specific behaviour we are dealing with. This allows us to focus on the psychological mechanisms of change and “re-cycle” or re-design already existing content, says the researcher.

A positive impact on public health is possible

Amongst other things, the programme can help therapists discuss issues related to lifestyle problems with their patients more efficiently, and can be used as a more targeted measure towards vulnerable patient groups.

– With drug users, for example, we can hope that other problems associated with their lifestyle can be significantly reduced. If that turns out to be the case, we might be able to reduce the gap in life expectancy between this group and the rest of the population, he says.

The researcher believes that this programme can make a big difference.

– As a public health initiative, we hope it can contribute to fewer people becoming patients to begin with, or that they become patients at a later stage in life, compared to what would be the case without this initiative. We believe it is possible to reach a sufficient number of people in a meaningful way to actually make a difference to public health, says Brendryen.


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By Julie Nybakk Kvaal, translated by Semantix
Published Dec. 20, 2018 1:10 PM - Last modified Dec. 20, 2018 1:10 PM