Can conversational AI solve the obesity crisis?

The obesity crisis is growing in the UK. Figures released by Public Health England show the number of people with obesity in England has almost doubled in the last twenty years, with younger generations becoming obese at an earlier age and that continuing into adulthood.

These figures shock – and with good reason. Obesity is a preventable disease of clinical and public health importance. Responsible for more than 30,000 deaths each year in the UK, it contributes to serious conditions including Type 2 Diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain cancers, including breast, prostate and colon.

To reverse this trend, we need to help people build a healthier relationship with food. But making such significant behavioural changes is no mean feat and there is only so much we, as healthcare professionals, can physically do.

Nudging patients towards healthy choices

One approach that has been shown to help individuals adhere to weight loss programmes is by leveraging the nudge theory, which advocates that regular, subtle communication is more effective at influencing people to change behaviour than just telling them to do so.

However, the challenge health professionals face in adopting this approach is its time-intensive nature. Shortages in public healthcare are well-documented: the NHS is facing a staffing shortfall of almost 250,000 by 2030. The short, irregular appointments we can offer make it hard to provide the regular nudges required to support true behavioural change.

Partnering with conversational AI for regular nudges

Conversational AI presents a massive opportunity to provide the regular nudges shown to support those on weight loss programmes make behavioural change. Conversational cognitive assistants can engage, educate and support people through their health plan to improve adherence and help them achieve the best results.

There are three steps for implementing cognitive assistants into this role:

Create a health plan – After having gained an understanding for the patient’s diet and lifestyle, the doctor creates a health plan to help address the pattern of behaviour over an extended period of time. This will be broken down into small, achievable goals that will help transform behaviour – for example, changing what people eat for breakfast.

Smart nudging – Enrolled patients will then have regular conversations with a cognitive assistant around their diet and health plan – either by text or telephone – to provide helpful nudges. This may be asking about their diet over the preceding few days or providing tips to help them meet their goal: for example, the cognitive assistant may ask “How much dressing did you have on your salad? Many people don’t know olive oil has 150 calories per spoon.”

Measuring and changing goals – The dialogue between the patient and cognitive assistant can help doctors adapt and improve individuals’ health plans. The regular conversations will reveal information on an individual’s diet and habits that just can’t be learnt in short visits to the doctor.

Let’s get smart to reverse the obesity trend

We all know that change happens when people are committed: but it’s still hard to make big life changes without regular and appropriate support. Doctors and nurses just don’t have the capacity to deliver the frequent touchpoints needed to nudge people towards healthier behaviours. But by using conversational AI, we can help keep people engaged in their weight loss programme, share helpful tips to help them achieve their goals, and provide doctors with more information so they can further personalise health plans to empower individuals’ success.

By Dr Vincent Grasso, IPSoft Inc.


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