Researchers to use digital technologies to help tackle chronic disease

Sedentary behaviors, poor sleep and questionable food choices are major contributors of chronic disease, including diabetes, anxiety, heart disease and many cancers. But what if we could prevent these through the power of smart technologies?

In a new University of South Australia research project announced today and funded by $1,118,593 from the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF), researchers will help Australians tackle chronic disease through a range of digital technologies to improve their health.

Using apps, wearables, social media and artificial intelligence, the research will show whether technology can modify and improve people's behaviours to create meaningful and lasting lifestyle changes that can ward off chronic disease.

Chronic disease is the leading cause of illness, disability and death in Australia with about half of Australians having a least one of eight major conditions including CVD, cancer, arthritis, asthma, back pain, diabetes, pulmonary disease and mental health conditions.

Nearly 40 per cent of chronic disease is preventable through modifiable lifestyle and diet factors.

The research will assess the ability of digital technologies to improve the health and wellbeing across a range of populations, health behaviours and outcomes, with a specific focus on how they can negate poor health outcomes associated high-risk events such as school holidays or Christmas (when people are more likely to indulge and less likely to exercise).

Here, technology could better track the activity among hospital inpatients, outpatients and home-patients (to help recovery from illness and surgery, leading to improved patient outcomes); and how new artificial intelligence-driven virtual health assistants can improve boost health among high-risk groups, such as older adults.

Lead researcher, UniSA's Associate Professor Carol Maher says the research aims to deliver accessible and affordable health solutions for all Australians.

Poor lifestyle patterns - a lack of exercise, excess sedentary behaviour, a lack of sleep and poor diets - are leading modifiable causes of death and disease in Australia."

Carol Maher, Lead Researcher and Associate Professor, University of South Australia

"Technology has a huge amount to offer in terms of improving lifestyle and health, especially in terms of personalisation and accessibility, but it has to be done thoroughly and it has to be done well.

"Research plays an important role in helping understand the products that are most effective, which will see us working with existing commercial technologies and applying and testing them in a new way, as well as developing bespoke software for specific, unmet needs.

"The great advantage of technology-delivered programs is that with careful design, once they are developed and evaluated, they can be delivered very affordably and on a massive scale.

"If we are to make any change in the prevalence of chronic disease in Australia, we must plan to do it en masse."

The research aims to bridge the gap between academic rigour and commercial offerings so ensure that every Australian has access to the health supports they need.

"One of the challenges we face is that many people who could benefit from digital health technologies are intimidated by them - for example, older adults who are not that comfortable with technology, or health professionals who are just used to doing things a certain way," Assoc Prof Maher says.

"Change can be hard, but when we're making leaps in the right direction to improve lifestyle and health of the Australian community, these changes are worth considering."

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