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Our Family Health

Jamie Blackshaw

By Jamie Blackshaw

RNutr (Public Health) BSc (hons) MMEDSCI DIC MSc. Team Leader: Obesity and Healthy Weight Diet, Obesity and Physical Activity Division

Rising numbers of people living with obesity is challenging smoking as the leading cause of preventable non-communicable disease around the world. Globally, health officials are grappling with the burden on services trying to prevent/support people who are experiencing obesity developing health conditions related to diseases such as Type 2 Diabetes, Musculoskeletal, cardiac complications and mental health. This burden is being felt in the Gulf nations even more where levels of obesity amongst men and women has been steadily increasing in the last two decades.

In the UK, where is estimated by the office for National Statistics that 1.2m lives are calculated to be lost each year due to obesity related illnesses, doctors, scientists and marketing experts at Government Agency Public Health England (PHE) have begun to explore how combining shifts in the physical, build and food environment with clever digital tools aimed at shifting behavioural choices can start to have an impact in tackling the obesity epidemic.

Tackling levels of obesity is a key priority across Government health and NHS in the UK in the 2020s with a target to reduce childhood obesity by the end of the decade (2030). Each year PHEs National Child Measurement Programme [NCMP} weights and measures hundreds of thousands of children at 4-5y and 10-11y.

Existing healthy weight management face to face services are well received by families and support behaviour change when families engage and participate. However, such services are not available in all the local authority areas in England, and those services on offer only reach a fraction of the target families. This has been combined with an excellent Eatwell Guide to influence better nutrition and awareness and Start4Life information service for children from 0 to 5 years; the service provides evidence-based information for parents on pregnancy and child health development from 0 to 5 years.

This is an area where a digital solution could provide families with an option to explore behaviour change and to do at the scale, and in a way that works with face to face services and empowers people to engage wit hand access support. From online tools to wearable devices, technology is opening new opportunities to monitor our health, identify problems earlier and reach people with tailored advice and support. And the expanding role of technology within public health goes hand in hand with advances in how personal data is collected, combined, analysed and utilised for different kinds of populations

Previously, the campaign Change4Life that combined digital tools and marketing to communicate information around how to make healthier activity and food choices has seen impacts such as a follow-up survey showing 42 per cent of respondents reported having made a switch to a lower sugar product as a direct result of the campaign. We have also successfully delivered activity campaigns for children in the last few years with partners like Disney. PHE’s pioneering online How are You quiz for adults currently provides personalised recommendations and directs people to tools and advice and make plans to improve their lives through making beneficial changes to their lifestyles.

Now PHE is pioneering a dynamic digital approach with the new Our Family Health App – which brings together digitally driven predictive prevention, kitemarked by the NHS and PHE, and drive to promote conditions that encourage healthier options around food and promote a healthier weight.

Using an agile way of working, the PHE team worked to combine expertise around healthy eating and healthy weight, behavioural science, and human-centred design, to develop a digital approach that could sit alongside the myriad apps and sites families now use in their everyday lives for work, learning and play. They spent time with parents and children nearly every week over the development phase to better understand lifestyles, motivations and challenges, to shape and prototype approach that is co-designed to work for its target audience.

The concept design builds on behavioural change techniques to offer information and approaches to set tailored goals at the right time to those who need it. The fundamental principle at the heart of the design is it focuses on improving and maintaining family health – not weight per se. We are currently testing this new digital concept with families in pilots to gain proven evidence before scaling up.

As a result, the new app is designed to use the best behavioural change techniques to offer nudges and information at the right time to those who need it. The fundamental principle at the heart of the design is it focuses on improving and maintaining family health – not weight per se. Key features, explored with families, include ways to support families access information from trusted sources, how to set goals one step at a time, a dashboard that shows progress towards achieving each goal, access to a community of peers that can be used for support and encouragement at any time and how to signpost relevant local activities. The concept has also explored how to create a safe, creative and engaging space for children through gamification techniques.

PHE’s endeavour in this area has helped to identify a gap in meeting family’s needs when it comes to support on whole family behaviour change. Our Family Health App, which is in its conceptual design stage, will provide a digital option that helps families, who wouldn’t ordinarily attend a face to face service. We are therefore ensuring we design alongside families so that it becomes a trusted digital companion that can support families on what we call a “healthy weight journey.’ Our ambition is that it will enable parents, carers and their children between four and nine years olds get trusted, practical and personalised tips, activities and games for the whole family.

Going forward PHE’s will be aiming to continue to develop Our Family Health and work with local authorities to explore how Our Family Health can support families living in some of our most deprived areas with high childhood obesity rates.

Our aspiration is that we will be able to work in close collaboration with all nations to share our knowledge and expertise and continue to develop innovative ways to enable populations to improve their health and overall wellbeing.

We have also successfully delivered activity campaigns for children in the last few years with partners like Disney.