Your smartphone could be the key to maintaining positive habits

NEW YORK - New research explores how the smartphone could be the vital key to unlocking behavioural change and helping consumers everywhere break bad habits. We are creatures of habit who crave routine, that rhythm or framework that may seem dull but that gives us a strong spine upon which to support our increasingly hectic lifestyles. Unfortunately, the downside is that behaviour, when it's that much ingrained, can seem impossible to change.

However, one of the causes of this increasingly hectic way of conducting our lives ie, the mobile device could hold the key to breaking bad habits and to adopting new, healthier ways of living for the long term, whether it's upping the time spent in the gym, cutting down on alcohol intake or simply remembering to take the right amount of medication at the right moment for the right length of time during illness.

A new white paper, published by Mobiquity and the Wireless Innovation Council, details how mobile devices are already altering behaviour and how their always-on, always-there ubiquity can be harnessed into making a positive difference in their owners' lives.

A two-way exchange

In particular, it's not simply that smartphones can deliver information directly to their users, they can also collect and share data, based on location, movement and behaviour, that can be analysed and used to develop improved services as well as assess the progress an individual is making towards his or her goal.

The white paper highlights a number of organisations that are already reaping the benefits of using smartphones as an agent of change, including Text4Baby which offers a free text message service for pregnant women and new mothers providing tips, encouragement and access to information and Vitality, an interactive initiative that helps users to adopt a healthier lifestyle and has seen adherence jump from 70-98 per cent since adopting a mobile device approach. Similar impact is noted in areas such as car and health insurance, greener living and in reducing utilities use.

Need for change

The paper's authors believe that a change is needed and needed fast when it comes to approaches to helping behavioural change. In the US alone, US$290 billion ($367 billion) annually is spent on healthcare costs when patients fail to take their prescribed medications, while US consumers, who clearly want to make a positive change but are misinformed or lack the right support, spend a combined US$50 billion a year just on what Mobiquity describes as "weight loss products, from questionable fat-burning supplements to ineffective exercise equipment". And it's these costs that are driving more and more healthcare organisations, researchers and government agencies alike towards mobile technology as a solution.

As Dr Stephen Ferzoco, Mobiquity chief medical officer, explains: "Behaviour change techniques and theories have been around for decades, but largely they have not achieved sustained success. The unique attributes of mobile provide an opportunity to not only strengthen behaviour change initiatives, but also transform healthcare from a system that revolves around physicians and hospitals to one that actively engages the patient."

So what are these unique smartphone attributes?

Personal and immediate

Your smartphone is always on and always with you, so chances are when a decision needs to be made, your device can help you make it. And because of its ubiquity, it is contextually aware and understands your location, the social context and your activities.

Sensing ability

The smartphone is the ideal tool for collecting data through its camera, microphone accelerometer and other sensors, and this information can be analysed and used to improve and individualize change programs automatically. People following a programme or using a service don't need to provide information, fill out forms or have face-to-face meetings.

An instant reward

An instantaneous way of offering advice, encouragement or congratulations via personalised messages, reinforcement or something more material, like a discount code to redeem a gift or other prize.

There's only one catch...

A smartphone is utterly useless at helping a consumer whose ultimate behavioural change goal is to reduce dependence on, or overuse of, a personal mobile device.