Government pilots new app to nudge people into healthy habits

The government hopes to tackle obesity-related illnesses by launching an app to encourage people to adopt healthy behaviours

2nd November 2021 about a 4 minute read
"This pilot is an excellent opportunity to find out how best to inspire people to make small changes to their daily lives that will have a lasting positive impact on their health." Sajid Javid, health and social care secretary

The government is to pilot an app that will provide users with personalised health recommendations and give them points to encourage them to adopt healthier lifestyles.

The pilot is to launch in January 2022 and will run for six months. The app, which will be available for wrist-worn devices, will provide users with recommendations tailored to their personal needs, in the hope that it will motivate people to make lifestyle changes. These will include, for example, eating more vegetables or increasing step count. The government has said that personal data will be stored safely and securely.

It will also award users points for adopting healthy behaviours, which can then be exchanged for rewards. These may include gym passes, clothes or food vouchers, and discounts for shops, cinema or theme park tickets.

The programme will be delivered by HeadUp, a games and development company, with £3 million also coming from the Department of Health and Social Care to provide incentives. HeadUp will work with a variety of organisations to provide rewards.

Two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese

It is one of the first initiatives from the new Office for Health Improvement and Disparities’ (OHID), created last month, and is designed to help people maintain a healthy weight and prevent them from developing health conditions related to lifestyle such as diabetes. Almost two-thirds of adults in England are overweight or obese, and obesity-related illnesses cost the NHS £6 billion a year.

Health and social care secretary Sajid Javid said: “I want to ensure we’re doing as much as we can to tackle health disparities across the country, and this new pilot will pave the way for developing innovative ways to improve the lives of individuals, and also help to reduce strain on the NHS.

“The Office of Health Improvement and Disparities is driving forward our levelling up agenda for health and ensuring prevention is a vital part of everything we do. This pilot is an excellent opportunity to find out how best to inspire people to make small changes to their daily lives that will have a lasting positive impact on their health.”

Internationally, the government says, similar incentive schemes, such as Singapore’s National Steps Challenge, have had promising results. It intends to work with international partners to inform best practice in England.

Sir Keith Mills, who has pioneered reward programmes through Airmiles and Nectar points, is advising the scheme. He described it as a “fantastic opportunity to explore how government, business and the third sector can work together to deliver a new and engaging way of supporting the public to make healthier choices.”

Dr Peter Bloomfield, FCC’s head of policy and research, commented: “In recent years we have seen a range of initiatives on data and technology deployed by government departments, with variable success, some such as the Ofqual A-Level example were poorly designed and the outcomes were far from the intended. Technology can be a hugely beneficial tool, however the design and deployment of these tools are crucial to success. Systemic biases can be amplified by such approaches.

“The Canadian Carrot Rewards app ran out of funding and is no longer operational, the Singapore trial with LumiHealth is less than a year old. The Government should learn from these initiatives and consider that they are not universally viewed as successful.”

Public health is an important focus for the government. This week, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has announced that e-cigarette manufacturers can now submit products to go through the same regulatory approvals process as other medicines, a move that could see them prescribed by doctors to help patients reduce smoking.

We’re running a year-long series of sci-fi stories that reimagine the future of health and social care. Read Keith Brooke’s story about the darker side of health monitoring apps here.