As we marvel at the devices that companies such as Nike, Fitbit, and Jawbone have brought to market and soon Apple, it’s no surprise that wearable technology holds huge, exciting possibilities for improving public health. Or does it?

Ogilvy CommonHealth Worldwide recently produced a report that showcases the future of wearable technology and its possibilities for improving public health. The report lends insight into some difficult but important questions currently challenging the health technology industry.

As an industry, the decisions we make now could fundamentally affect the future of public health. We can determine whether the various opportunities that stare us in the face are grabbed with full force, or whether they are limited to a select few health enthusiasts and technophiles; the consumers who are currently embracing these wearable gadgets. Wearable technology could deliver public health support on a previously unimaginable scale. But, in order to create a brighter, healthier future for all, it’s imperative that the development is driven by a desire to change people’s health behaviour, rather than a desire to amass data (for data’s sake).

So why raise these questions now? Firstly, to make a real and positive difference in public health. It’s a pivotal time in the evolution of healthcare related apps that means we could see this technology make a real change. Secondly, because we think the time is right. For example, obesity is reaching a tipping point: worldwide obesity has nearly doubled since 1980 and in 2013, 42 million children under the age of five were classified as obese.

One of the key conclusions of the report is that the way people are motivated by wearable technology to improve their health is extremely personal and the way to address this, to truly effect change in public health, is to leverage three forces.

1. Force #1: Engage ecosystems

In the future, ecosystems of different stakeholders and ecosystems of different technologies need to come together to create an engaged network of not just clever technology (such as that we are beginning to see with the internet of things), but one that is connected to the right influencers who can mobilise this across communities.

2. Force #2: Embrace automatic responses

Much of our behaviour is automatically triggered by environmental factors and cues, and we need to embrace the fact that not everything we humans do is a fully-conscious decision. The next generation of activity trackers, and their apps, should not only measure behaviours and automatic bodily responses, but should marry this information with associated contextual and environmental factors to design personalised techniques and nudges that can gently steer us away from the ‘bad’ and towards the ‘good’.

3. Force #3: Let the technology do the learning

We need devices and (increasingly) supporting apps that are able to quickly spot which behaviour change techniques are working well and which aren’t, at an individual level, and adapt accordingly. Based on these detailed profiles, the technology will be able to learn which behaviour change techniques are most impactful, not just in the individuals they learn from, but in those who match a similar profile. Everything will be more intelligent from the word go.

A one-size-fits-all, techno-centric strategy is doomed for failure: we must start thinking of wearable technology as an intelligent, self-learning system in order to engage with a wide cross-section of society through increasingly personalised strategies.

 

By David Davenport-Firth, EVP, Health Behaviour Strategy & Intervention at Ogilvy CommonHealth Worldwide


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