Miriam E Tucker

June 27, 2017

SAN DIEGO — A mobile health-engagement platform in the form of an app can help promote weight loss and adherence to in-person lifestyle modification programs among overweight and obese adults, new research indicates.

Results obtained with the Sidekick Health platform were presented June 11 here at the American Diabetes Association (ADA) 2017 Scientific Sessions by company cofounder and chief medical officer Saemundur "Sam" Oddsson, MD, an internist in Palo Alto, California.

The 'gamified' app uses a colorful and user-friendly interface and offers rewards to promote three behavioral areas: nutrition, physical activity, and stress management. Designed in collaboration with brain researchers from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it incorporates artificial intelligence to target the emotional areas of the brain that govern lifestyle choices.

"We believe in the power of gamification and behavioral economics when it comes to engaging and motivating patients to improve their health and increase attendance….We use smartphone technology with a data-driven approach to engage people in lifestyle change programs to increase their motivation and get better results," Dr Oddsson told Medscape Medical News.

"The key is to keep it light, colorful, and fun," he added.

The company works with organizations such as health systems, physician practices, and diabetes-prevention programs to tailor the platform for their individual populations.

"It's fully scalable. Healthcare providers can interact with thousands of users….Patients get motivated by this. They really feel that someone is watching over them," he said.

Asked to comment, session moderator Arshiya A Baig, MD, of the Chicago Center for Diabetes Translation Research, Illinois, told Medscape Medical News, "We really need to harness mobile phone technology….I think using gaming is actually really innovative. We're moving from using mostly texting — which has been [widely] studied — to apps, and now to gaming. I'm very interested in learning more about it and seeing how we can expand and build upon it for different populations."

Weight Loss, Program Adherence

The study enrolled a total of 153 overweight or obese adults in a standard in-person lifestyle-modification program delivered weekly over 4 months and randomized them to either that alone or combined with the mobile application. The 4-month analysis included 73 who received the combined intervention and 54 controls, with 26 who didn't use the app removed from the study. Both groups had a mean age of 47 years and body mass index 36 kg/m2. The majority (93%) were women.

At 4 months, the app group was nearly three times more likely to have achieved a 5% weight loss. Also, by month 2, average class attendance had grown by 4% in the app group compared with a 17% drop among the controls. By month 4, those proportions were +6% vs -25%.  

The company is "very conscious of different levels of health literacy," Dr Oddsson noted, adding that versions are currently available in Spanish and Swedish, and a Chinese version is coming soon.

Asked by an audience member about how the system worked by gender and age, Dr Oddsson acknowledged that the predominance of women in the study was a limitation. By age, however, he said that in another study of the platform in a Medicare-aged population, there was 84% program retention by month 4 with significant improvements in daily activity.

Indeed, Dr Baig commented, "I actually think there are probably different types of games for different people. Even my older patients play games. More and more I'm seeing older people using apps and health portals, so why can't they use games? I think it's forward-thinking and pretty cool."

Dr Oddsson is cofounder and chief medical officer of Sidekick Health. Dr Baig has no relevant financial relationships.

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American Diabetes Association 2017 Scientific Sessions. June 11, 2017; San Diego, California. Abstract 162-OR

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