Tim found himself lying on the bathroom floor, unable to get up. Every bone in his body was tired. His mind was empty, and yet it was spinning with a to do-list that never seemed to end. The trip to the doctors earlier the same day had landed him with 3 weeks of sick-leave due to exhaustion, but he had no clue what to do with himself and the empty calendar that stared at him. He had known that his sleep quality wasn´t good. He had known that his recovery was insufficient. But he didn’t know how to fix it. He needed help. He needed someone to take his hand and walk alongside him on the road to recovery. He needed tools for change.

A doctor, psychologist, coach or a friend. For hundreds of years we have sat down, human to human, when in need of guidance, help and assistance with our health and wellbeing. The 21st century brought us health technology: ways of tracking and measuring our health, exercise and behavior – in real time. The promise was that knowing how much we walk, sleep, eat and recover would help make us healthier and happier. Unfortunately, the reality of health tech didn’t match the hype, and there are still thousands of “Tims” all around the world feeling helpless and alone.

Sales of health tracking devices has increased globally from a little under $5 million 2014, to more than $20 million in 2017 (1). People around the globe now track their health using watches, apps and jewelry. Yet, in the US alone, 64 million suffer from exhaustion, 30 million from diabetes, and the obesity epidemic is reaching new highs (2). These lifestyle diseases could have been prevented. So the question arises: why hasn’t technology made us any healthier?

One problem lay in retention and target groups. A study of people wearing a Fitbit tracker shows that about 40% of participants had stopped wearing it in the first six months, and by the end of the 1 year long study only 10% were still using it (3). This isn’t the first scientific blow to wearables. John Jakicic, the author of that study and a physical activity researcher at the University of Pittsburgh states: “The vast majority of people who purchase these things probably are fitness people. I think the challenge is, how do we build these for people who are not into it, to help them to become more active? This data suggests that we need to do more than just give them an activity tracker.”(3). So what can we do to reach the people that really need help and get them activated?

When searching for answers to this question, I kept coming back to one thing: the importance of human support. Studies on how the digital age is transforming traditional therapy say: “technology that has a better chance of helping people are tools that enable people to think things through collaboratively, in a context where they feel emotionally secure and cared for by another real live person (4). What’s more, digital therapeutics has been shown to be as effective as traditional therapeutics (5).

At Fifth Corner Inc. we’ve been able to quantify the impact of human support in health tech. Simply by adding the presence of a personal coach we have noticed an increase of 20-50% in engagement versus a purely digital journey. That’s a huge boost. So why is human support so important? Research highlights three reasons why humans are needed to boost people’s success rate – even in a digital service.

 

1. The first is personal accountability. When we feel accountable to someone – a friend, partner or a coach – we get better results. For example, a study has shown that if you start exercising together with your partner, you’re 44% more likely to stick to it than if you start exercising alone (6).

2. The second is the need of being seen and heard by a human being. A study made by the Campaign to End Loneliness “surveyed more than 1,000 family doctors, more than three quarters of whom said they were typically seeing between one and five patients every day whose main reason for seeing the doctor was loneliness” (7).

3. The third is the power of your social context. Research has shown that people change effectively when they are embedded in social groups that encourage change. The ‘Longevity Project’ which studied over 1000 people from youth to death concluded: “The groups you associate with determine the person you become. For people who want improved health, association with healthy people is usually the strongest and most direct path of change” (9).

 

So how can we use technology to truly help us live healthier, happier lives? By adding a human touch to the experience. Some of the best things technology has offered us are ways of connecting globally and locally, detecting symptoms and risks earlier than before, and caring for people scalably, and in a cost effective manner. But for change to happen we still need that feeling of human connection. Of being seen and heard by someone who cares about the progress we make and how we are doing.

And what about Tim? He has been using a digital service to learn how to recover better, work smarter and find joy again. And his personal coach has been by his virtual side, every step of the way. That’s what I call technology with a beating heart.

 

SOURCES:

[1] Statista: https://www.statista.com/topics/4393/fitness-and-activity-tracker/
[2] Morar Consulting; Gallup
a. https://www.healthline.com/health/type-2-diabetes/statistics
b. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/major-depression.shtml
c. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-basics/cancer-prevalence.html
[3] Time: http://time.com/4517033/fitness-tracker-fitbit-zip-exercise/
[4] Factor Tech: http://factor-tech.com/feature/app-vs-therapist-how-the-digital-age-is-transforming-therapy/
[5] Guided Internet-based vs. face-to-face cognitive behavior therapy for psychiatric and somatic disorders: a systematic review and meta-analysis. G. Andersson et al.; World Psychiatry. 2014 Oct; 13(3): 288–295.
[6] Jama Network: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2091401
[7] The Independent, 2013: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/charity-claims-loneliness-is-the-reason-one-in-10-visit-their-gp-8940392.html
[8] Health concordance within couples: A systematic review. Deanna Meylera, Jim P. Stimpsonb, M. Kristen Peekc 2007
[9] The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/03/the-longevity-project-decades-of-data-reveal-paths-to-long-life/72290/