Virtual coaches keep overweight people on track

Overweight people who make use of web-based virtual coaches show more commitment to improving their health than those who don’t, according to a new study by the Center for Connected Health and Massachusetts General Hospital.

The study gives added weight to the ability of mobile health tools to change unhealthy behaviors in the home, a key factor in their acceptance by physicians and health plans as a means of promoting wellness and helping people with chronic conditions.

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“New technologies are showing great promise as effective, accessible and inexpensive solutions to a number of chronic health conditions and Internet-based interventions are demonstrating reductions in weight using a combination of self-monitoring, education and motivational messaging,” said study co-author Joseph C. Kvedar, MD, founder and director of the Center for Connected Health, a division of Boston-based Partners Healthcare. “We believe these results may be further enhanced with the addition of automated coaching, to promote accountability and adherence.”

“Virtual coaching has many applications beyond promoting activity and is increasingly recognized as an important component in the management of chronic conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, and in the promotion of healthy behaviors, such as adherence to medication,” Kvedar added. “Given the growing burden of chronic disease and the shortage of providers, this technology may prove useful adjuncts to conventional office based care, to help patients develop better self-management skills.”

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According to the study, published in the current issue of the Journal of Medical Internet Research, 70 overweight or obese participants were asked to wear a wireless pedometer and were given access to a website to review their step counts. Half of the group was given access to an automated, animated virtual coach via their home computer, where they received personalized feedback based on their step counts and were encouraged to set goals.

While everyone reported benefitting from taking part in the 12-week study, those using a virtual coach maintained their step counts, while those without access to a virtual coach saw heir step counts decrease by 14.3 percent over the course of the study. In addition, 58.1 percent of the participants using a virtual coach indicated it motivated them to be more active, and 87.1 percent reported feeling guilty if they skipped an online appointment.

“With a growing population of aging baby boomers and an ongoing shortage of healthcare professionals, a virtual coach can help bridge the gap to help remind and motivate people to stick to a care plan or wellness regimen,” said study co-author Timothy Bickmore, an associate professor in the College of Computer and Information Science at Northeastern University, “The virtual coach and other relational agents have an important role in health and wellness, as proven by studies like this.”