Can weight management apps save the NHS £27b a year?

With the NHS spending more than £27 billion a year on the treatment of obesity, could smart phone apps be a cost-effective solution to reducing this budget?

There are many types of weight management apps, some are free and some are not. The majority focus on weight loss through calorie restriction with or without a physical activity aspect.

Few if any are scientifically evaluated for effectiveness or developed with evidence based strategies.

Do weight loss apps work?

Trawling through the medical literature, there are some published randomised control trials that have investigated the efficacy of smart phone apps on weight management. The limited evidence suggests that this type of technology could be a low cost and effective intervention for increasing awareness of the calorie contents of foods, tracking total energy intake and manipulating diets to reduce calories thereby improving diet quality and managing modest weight loss. Apps that include a physical activity aspect compared to apps without, appear to improve weight loss success.

Analysing what users want from these types of apps, the studies suggest that they value structure, ease of use, personalised features and accessibility and that continued use depends on these design features. The focus on calorie counting is limited and apps need to include behaviour changing strategies.

Apps that provide goal setting, self-monitoring, tracking and feedback for food intake and weight management as well as advice on healthy cooking, grocery shopping and forums for social support may improve nutrition knowledge and importantly result in the types of behavioural changes that are needed to reduce weight and ultimately our obesity epidemic.

Are weight management apps a cost-effective solution to managing our obesity epidemic?

While the limited research in this area suggest that smart phone apps may be a valuable tool for short term but modest weight loss, there is insufficient evidence for its effectiveness for long term weight loss maintenance or weight gain prevention. However even modest weight loss has been shown to have significant impacts on the decrease of chronic disease risk, making these types of apps a potentially valuable tool.

How do we make weight management apps effective?

Incorporating evidence based behaviour change techniques as well as extensive food databases, provision of diaries and food scanners could optimise the effectiveness of weight management apps making them in the future effective cost cutting tools in helping to reduce the NHS budget spent on obesity. In addition, there is also a need to better target and tailor these apps to specific at risk and cultural groups.

While the weight loss apps that exist provide a nutrition education tool and in some cases, can result in modest weight loss, managing our obesity crisis is all about understanding how we can improve not just awareness and nutrition knowledge but achieve the behavioural changes and motivation needed to improve weight management. For this to happen we need health experts to work with designers to develop evidence based apps that are demonstrated as effective tools in the management and prevention of obesity.