Study on diet apps in Journal of Participatory Medicine

By Chris Gullo
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Khan-figure-2-600x246A new research paper published in the Journal of Participatory Medicine, “Exploring Everyday Health Routines of a Low Socioeconomic Population through Multimedia Elicitations,” examines the ways mobile phones can influence healthy behavior in low socioeconomic environments where chronic diseases are common due to poor health.

The study attempts to illuminate how limited income, lack of nutritional education, stress and cultural upbringing can lead to unhealthy eating habits. The results of the study will be used in developing mobile applications for underserved populations.

Only eight people participated in the study, four being primary caregivers (mothers) and four being secondary caregivers (the oldest, teenage daughters). The participants were given mobile phones and instructed to send daily pictures and videos of their diets and exercise to the researchers. The researchers noted that, although half the families did not own a computer at home, all participants owned mobile phones and knew how to operate them to send and receive text messages and media. Overwhelmingly, the participants viewed "health" as related to diet only and reported minimal exercise beyond walking.

The researchers saw wearable technology as a possible solution to a lack of exercise. They wrote: "Most mobile phones today contain sensors (eg, accelerometers) that can be used as a wearable device to monitor and share timely information at the right time and place to encourage opportunistic activities. As opposed to structured exercise, a person incorporates activities into their everyday lives (eg, taking the stairs instead of the elevator) in an effort to increase overall activity. Research has shown that this can often lead to structured exercise." A technological intervention, the researchers wrote, should be designed to induce a gradual positive change in low income families’ health and highlight examples of good health to educate the community.

mHealth apps in underserved communities need to stress ease of use: "Any technology needs to educate or abstract nutritional information so that it is easy to understand. For example, star icons can provide a weighted representation of nutritional values." The authors write that they are designing multiple mobile apps that "visualize the target population’s snacking habits to provide participants timely feedback on their dietary choices." The authors are planning a usability evaluation study in the same population for feedback on designing the upcoming app's interface.

Read the full paper here from JPM.