Can Technology Bridge the Gap Between Knowing and Doing?

October 14, 2015

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Chronic disease prevention isn’t sexy. Its core tenets induce eye rolls with their basic simplicity: “Eat better. Exercise more.” Ugh, how boring. Isn’t there some pill I can take to stave off a heart attack or cancer? A one-time shot to make me diabetes-proof?

Healthcare providers and public health professionals have long struggled with how to get patients to adopt healthy habits without their eyes glazing over. “Yes, yes, I already know about those things, but isn’t there some other way?” patients seem to say. In fact, entire professions and wellness programs have emerged to address this need — from health educators and dietitians to community health workers and patient navigators.

So how do we bridge this gap between knowing and doing? According to the theorists, behavior change requires three things: knowledge, motivation and skills. If knowledge is a given, we must be falling down on the other two. Do we just need to do a better job of inspiring people to action? Do we need to break strategies down into simple steps, as some suggest? And can technology help play a role?

If the popularity of fitness trackers is any indication, the answer, in part at least, may be, “Yes.” Giving people the ability to set individualized goals for physical activity or calorie intake, and then allowing them to easily track their progress along the way right on their wrist or mobile app seems to address at least part of the equation. Then layer that with reward systems and competition among friends and family, and you have added incentive to make a change. How many of us have taken another walk around the block at night to get in 10,000 steps or to best a colleague?

Further evidence of the digital health’s potential came earlier this year when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledged that digital tools such as mobile apps and online coaching programs can help patients change their lifestyles to prevent type 2 diabetes. As systems become more integrated and information can be more easily shared among patients and their physicians—and as new sensors can provide even more sophisticated physiological monitoring information—we seem to only be scratching the surface of possibility.

Even with all its bells and whistles, technology is no silver bullet. People still need to do the work of fitting healthy habits into their daily lives. But my hunch is that we’re only beginning to glimpse how digital health and technology will shape our approach to chronic disease prevention, monitoring and treatment. And the future possibilities are pretty exciting.