The silver bullet for population health? Personalisation

We don’t make rational decisions about what we eat. We, as a nation, know full well that consuming too much sugar and fat, and too few vegetables and fruit, is detrimental to our wellbeing and longevity. Yet the vast majority of us do it anyway.

The National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) published by Public Health England in March showed that in 2014-16, adults consumed on average 4.2 portions of fruit & vegetables per day, fewer than PHE’s recommendation of 5 per day – to which just 31% of adults adhere. As a result, only one third of the UK population is not overweight.

So why do we make these choices? Information and guidance on nutrition is widely available. The argument that “not everybody can afford to eat healthily” is – at least in 2018 – a myth, as was recently evidenced by Changing Health lifestyle coach Holly Hart in her mission to document an entire week’s worth of healthy, tasty cooking for just £20.76.

The answer lies in behavioural psychology. We often make rapid decisions on what to eat based on habitual, social and environmental factors – “it’s takeaway Friday”; “everyone’s heading to a steakhouse”, “I’m hungry, and I’m drive past McDonalds on my way home from work”.

Overcoming these psychological factors is not easy. Many people need support to do so. Some face-to-face interventions, such as WeightWatchers and Slimming World, can give people a better understanding of how they could eat more healthily and assist in weight loss, but don’t equip people with the repertoire of psychological tools needed to sustain such a change over the long term.

More personalised support, however, can be highly effective in translating motivation into new behaviours that become firmly established over time. Changing Health’s team of expert lifestyle coaches, trained in health psychology techniques, help programme users to make this happen.

Coaches devise a unique programme to each user’s individual needs, which requires a thorough understanding of that user’s current lifestyle habits to identify barriers to change. Open-ended questions and active listening are therefore crucial from the outset.As Carl Lumsden, Changing Health Coaching Team Leader, puts it: “Lifestyle coaching offers us the ability to explore every client’s needs and tailor make our behaviour change programme to suit them. I often find that many users have digested all the guidance on diet and exercise. They know they need to make a change. However, they’re rarely equipped to put this into practice.”

Setting SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Timely) goals, from skipping takeaway fridays to walking home from work, is key to success. For example, research shows that those who write their goals down, share them with a mentor or friend, and provide regular updates on progress are 33% more likely to achieve them.

Reflecting on and summarising interactions shows users their coach has listened to them and understood, while feedback on performance, social support and prompts and cues are all important for continued motivation.

Personalised interventions have been proven effective in better engaging people with their health and healthcare, and facilitating long-term behavioural change. If they can be adopted at scale, the implications for public health are boundless.

Changing Health’s behavioural science white paper will be published on 16 May 2018 at the Primary Care Conference, NEC Birmingham. Meet the author Mark Williams on our team page.