Technology And Financial Incentives Inspire Healthy Habits
May 30, 2012

Technology And Financial Incentives Inspire Healthy Habits

Connie K. Ho for

Calorie counting. Excessive exercising. For any person, losing weight and eating healthy can be a difficult challenge. In a recent issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers stated that mobile technology, remote coaching, and financial incentives could possibly improve the diet and physical activity of patients to promote healthier habits

The scientists discussed the difficulty patients have in following their physicians´ advice in obtaining preventive care. The researchers describe how the physicians are also skeptical of the patients´ progress in changing unhealthy habits. As well, there is a lack of time and resources available to doctors to help their patients.

"This study's interventions leveraged handheld technology to create efficient interventions that make self-monitoring more convenient, extend decision support into life contexts where lifestyle choices are made, and convey time-stamped behavioral data to paraprofessionals who provide coaching remotely," the researchers noted.

As such, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine researcher Bonnie Spring and colleagues looked at 204 adult patients, 48 who were men, who consumed large amounts of high-saturated foods and had a low intake of fruits and vegetables. As well, the subjects appeared to be more sedentary and rarely participated in physical activity. In the project, the participants were randomly assigned to four different groups where they received different treatments. The treatments included an increase in the amount of physical activity as well as the consumption of fruits and vegetables, a decrease in fat and time spent on sedentary activities, a decrease in fat and an increase in physical activity, and increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables while decreasing sedentary activity. Patients recorded and self-regulated behaviors with the help of a personal digital assistant device.

Treatment spanned over three weeks and the participants uploaded data on a daily basis. They also maintained constant communication with coaches through telephone or email. If the participants met their goal during the treatment phase, they would receive a prize of $175. If the patients continued reaching goals in the follow-up phase, they could earn $30 to $80.

All four groups made progress, but the group that increased fruit and vegetable consumption as well as decreased sedentary activity showed the best results. The findings showed that subjects didn´t achieve as many goals after the treatment, but improvements continued during the follow-up period.

"The increase fruits/vegetables and decrease sedentary leisure treatment maximized healthy lifestyle change compared with the other interventions," remarked the authors on the results. "This study demonstrates the feasibility of changing multiple unhealthy diet and activity behaviors simultaneously, efficiently and with minimal face-to-face contact by using mobile technology, remote coaching, and incentives.”

William T. Riley of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health in Maryland also submitted an editorial that that accompanied the article.

"Via technology, we will soon be able to deliver fully automated and configurable multiple risk factor interventions that monitor progress continuously and can be delivered throughout the day every day,” noted Riley in the commentary.

While acknowledging the success of the study, Riley also states the need to continue to do more research to understand better how the various factors of technology and financial incentives can encourage people to pursue healthier habits.

"It remains an empirical question, however, whether these technological advances improve outcomes, reduce costs or both," Riley continues. "Spring et al have contributed to the empirical evidence of the value of these technologies, but many more research contributions such as this are needed to establish that technologically delivered multiple risk factor interventions improve outcomes.”