By Claire Discenza
San Diego, CA, August 16, 2012 – Over the past 30 years, obesity and its related health implications has become a leading health problem in the United States. With one-third of Americans now considered to be obese -- including 18% of all children -- Americans spend $150 billion a year treating a multitude of debilitating weight-related illnesses. This is almost 10 percent of the national medical budget.
The California Institute of Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) at UC San Diego has embarked on a number of research initiatives to study what turns out to be a very complex set of genetic, environmental and social problems. The goal: to use technology in novel ways to curb, and ultimately to end, this crippling epidemic.
“One of Calit2’s four research ‘thrusts’ is health, and we cannot address health or healthcare in America without addressing obesity,” says Ramesh Rao, director of the UCSD division of Calit2. “The singular ability of technology to connect with individuals in a meaningful, personalized way is something we at Calit2 believe is key to fighting dangerous levels of obesity.”
Housed at Calit2, the Center for Wellness and Population Health Systems (CWPHS) is spearheading a handful of these broad-ranging studies and technology testbeds. One such project, “ConTXT,” is a National Cancer Institute-funded four-year research study investigating the potential benefits of cell phone text messaging intervention.
At the core of “ConTXT” are “contextual text-messages,” from which the project derives its name. Participants receive exercise and diet-related text messages based on their environment, personal habits and responses to questions. These text-messages are timed and personalized in an attempt to maximally influence behavioral choices.
“Text messages can provide brief, inexpensive messages on nutrition, physical activity, and weight loss that can be delivered at the perfect time,” explains Lindsay Dillon, ConTXT project coordinator. “Consider getting a text message about a healthy eating strategy right before you sit down for dinner. It may cause you to think twice about reaching for dessert.”
Kevin Patrick, director of CWPHS and professor in the department of Family and Preventive Medicine at UCSD, adds that “what these text messages really can do is remind people to do something. And believe it or not, those reminders are really valuable.”
“There is a whole science of behavior change related to the core strategies that we’re using to feed the content of these text messages,” continues Patrick. “The text messages are written and pre-populated into the system, but they can change over time based upon the shape of someone’s interaction with the system.”
Beyond text-messaging, other CWPHS projects enlist smartphone apps and Facebook to help handle weight-related health problems. CWPHS’s “Social/Mobile Approach to Reduce Weight” (or SMART) project is a two-year trial designed to test the idea that social-media and mobile-technology intervention can help lower participants’ weight.
Over the course of the SMART trial, participants’ body statistics, diet, physical activity, quality of life and incidence of depression are tracked carefully. But it’s not just about monitoring -- the study focuses on using the social power of online networks, and learning how the characteristics of those networks influence participants’ success.
“A lot of the work on social networks is descriptive, but our work is to intervene -- to manipulate things within the network and see whether or not you can actually make a difference,” explains Patrick. “We’re actually very interested in having you work with your existing Facebook friends -- and to reach into that group,” he says.
In addition to CWPHS’s many research projects and collaborations at UC San Diego, the center also reaches out to the community. Beginning last month, , CWPHS hosted a screening of “Weight of the Nation”, a four-part HBO documentary series designed to teach the public about the crucial importance of solving the obesity crisis in our country.
Produced in association with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “Weight of the Nation” addresses the scope of the obesity problem and educates viewers about possible solutions. It does this using powerful imagery, case-studies, and interviews with scientists, healthcare providers and policy-makers.
“It’s really not just about what you’re eating, it’s about what’s eating you,” says Elyssa Epel, Co-director of Center for Obesity Assessment, Study and Treatment at UC San Francisco, in one “Weight of the Nation” interview. “We have an epidemic of obesity, but we also have an epidemic of stress. And the two are feeding each other.”
Outside of CWPHS, other Calit2 affiliates have been exploring the weight-loss potential of technology. In 2010, Aaron Coleman and Jessica Oratowski-Coleman, married Calit2 co-workers, won the “Apps for Healthy Kids Challenge” -- a competition to design the most effective weight-loss mobile application. The nation-wide competition was sponsored by “Let’s Move,” First Lady Michelle Obama’s initiative to fight childhood obesity. Their winning entry, “Food Buster,” is a game that rewards players with points for selecting lowest-calorie meal options.
More recently, Calit2 provided technical support to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (AJPM) – which is based in Calit2’s headquarters in Atkinson Hall – for its “Childhood Obesity Challenge.” The Challenge is a competition awarding cash-prizes to an individual or team that designs the best creative and feasible way to promote diet and exercise among children. Submissions will be evaluated for innovativeness and impact, and winners will be recognized in AJPM publications.
All of these projects bring together the power of wireless and networked technologies to make a physical difference in the lives of both individuals and communities. Perhaps, through novel uses for mobile and internet devices, the technological revolution that brought this obesity epidemic upon us can be used to fight it as well.
Story written by Claire Discenza
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