solving the obesity epidemic
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Dr. S. Vincent Grasso, Global Practice Lead: Healthcare & Life Sciences at IPsoft discusses how artificial intelligence (AI) may hold the key to solving the obesity epidemic and relieving pressure on healthcare services

In the last few decades, obesity in the UK has grown exponentially. The number of people with obesity in England has almost doubled in the last twenty years, and childhood obesity is a growing problem, with one in five children estimated to be overweight. There is no denying that obesity is putting a significant strain on the NHS, with the government projecting that the cost to the health service will reach £9.7 billion by 2050.

Ensuring that those struggling with their weight adhere to a healthy lifestyle plan is essential to reduce the cost and resource burden that obesity-related conditions are causing the health service. However, as this often requires significant behavioural change, this can be incredibly difficult for patients to do without regular support from medical professionals “nudging” them towards better, healthier choices. One potential solution currently being explored is whether artificial intelligence (AI)-powered cognitive assistants could be deployed in line with the ‘nudge theory’ to support people in making better decisions regarding their health.

What is the nudge theory?

The nudge theory, made famous by Nobel Laureates Richard Thaler and Daniel Kahneman, found that subtly encouraging people to change their behaviour through a series of gentle reminders was a far more effective means of motivation than actually telling them to do so. They also found that frequent communications and engagement leads to better results.

However, with the NHS facing significant staff shortages of up to 250,000 by 2030, health professionals don’t have the capacity to deliver this high-touch support. Instead, conversational AI can act as a behavioural coach, nudging patients to follow a healthier lifestyle at home. This helps keep the patient on-track between meetings with their doctor.

Through regular conversation with the patient, the cognitive assistant can support those undergoing a weight management programme to educate them, keep them motivated and ensure they are adhering to the plan. The result? Patients are nudged into naturally making healthier lifestyle choices regarding food, drink and activity.

A step-by-step guide to intervention

Many people are already using digital voice assistants to manage their consumer devices, such as Alexa or Siri. So, interacting with a cognitive assistant won’t feel too alien to them. But while we may be used to asking Siri for the weather forecast, how would a patient use a cognitive assistant help them adhere to a weight loss plan?

Step 1: Personalising a weight loss plan

Having a clear, achievable, measurable plan is key to a successful weight loss programme. After having gained an understanding for the patient’s diet and lifestyle, the patient’s doctor designs  a plan that will help them achieve behavioural change. This will be broken down into a series of smaller, achievable goals – for example, changing what a person eats for breakfast.

Step 2: Weight loss maintenance strategies

The next step is for enrolled patients to start having regular conversations with the cognitive assistant that provide them with helpful nudges that will help them achieve their goals. For example, as part of a discussion about the patient’s diet over the preceding couple of days, the cognitive assistant may want to call-out how one breakfast was better for their weight-loss plan than another by pointing out how many calories a fry up has vs a bowl of porridge. With frequent, conversational interactions between patient and coach, the cognitive assistant is able to help the patient develop and maintain healthier routines.

Step 3: Establishing a continuous feedback loop

The role of this technology is not only to ensure the patient sticks to the plan, but also helps the doctor to continuously improve the patient’s weight-loss plan based on the information that they have revealed during their dialogues with the conversational AI. The regular conversations will reveal information on an individual’s diet and habits that just won’t necessarily be revealed in short visits to the doctor.

The cognitive assistant can also flag to the doctor when the conversations reveal information that requires human intervention. For example, if the patient begins reporting new health complaints, the cognitive assistant can flag to the doctor that an in-person appointment needs to be arranged.

Time for change

Nudge theory and applying it to weight-loss programmes will not only support individual success, but also reduce health service costs and the strain on the system. The NHS just doesn’t have the human resource to provide this service in person, with untreated cases subsequently increasing pressure on the health service as many patients developing obesity-related diseases, such as type-2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or certain cancers.

By providing regular touchpoints with cognitive assistants to those going on weight management programmes via gentle and guiding nudges, we can help make people’s diets a success, and take further steps toward solving the obesity epidemic head-on.


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