Vancouver Sun: Digital therapeutics can improve health behaviours

vancouver sun 03/15/2017

The following opinion on #BCTECH Summit healthcare innovation appeared in the Vancouver Sun on March 14, 2017.


Excerpt: Thousands of B.C.’s brightest minds are converging in Vancouver on March 14-15 for the #BCTECH Summit, a celebration of this province’s fast-growing, and increasingly important, high-tech sector.

The biggest players in the industry will be there showing off their emerging technologies. So too will the smallest participants, the independent startups hoping to showcase a new technology or innovation.

It’s an impressive sight to see so many working today on tomorrow’s breakthroughs. But something seen less often is when one of these big players joins forces with one of the small ones. What could possibly result? Pioneering creativity and health-care innovation.

We speak from experience. Several years ago, Vancouver-based digital therapeutics company Ayogo partnered with international pharmaceutical firm Merck with a common goal — to improve health outcomes for children who are overweight or obese. Today, working with the Childhood Obesity Foundation in Vancouver, we are pioneering high-tech solutions to transform lives.

In Canada, more than 30 per cent of children are considered overweight or obese. They’re at risk of developing serious health complications. including diabetes, liver disease and respiratory problems. These ailments take an enormous personal and emotional toll on patients and they create huge and growing costs to the health-care system today and into the future.

But an innovative generation of digital technologies presents a new and unique opportunity. By looking at fundamental human behaviours and how they’re influenced by things such as smartphones, social networks, machine learning, the “Internet of things” and so on, we now have an entirely new perspective on problems that have bedevilled the health-care system for decades. For example, social and mobile games have contributed entirely new design patterns and channels of communication that can be used to engage obese kids, to help them form new habits and change decisions related to food and exercise.

It may sound simple, but digital therapeutics is an emerging behavioural science. Put simply, we now have some of the most potent tools we have ever had for motivating people to act. They have the ability to harness human behaviour and motivate people away from illness and toward health.

Together, in partnership, we are developing an evidence-based approach to create vibrant, encouraging and enjoyable experiences that can be incorporated into the end-user’s “real life.” The goal is an environment that does more than just promote the benefits of good nutrition and exercise. It harnesses emotional meaning, practical usefulness and satisfying mechanics to help children and their families to establish their own persistent healthy behaviour. It’s this kind of breakthrough that might not have been realized had these three partners not joined forces and agreed to think differently about the problem and solutions.

The provincial government’s #BCTECH Summit is like a giant incubator that can nurture this kind of innovation. This week at the summit, we will be talking about the power of partnerships in an effort to promote these kinds of non-traditional health-care innovations. The obesity project is merely one example. Merck has a long history of partnering with other B.C. biotech firms to develop tomorrow’s breakthrough medicines and treatments. We are helping develop and commercialize their discoveries, creating hundreds of jobs in the process.

Put together, it represents a quiet, high-tech health revolution — and it’s happening in our own backyard. Every day, pioneering B.C. companies are developing innovative health-care solutions. It’s the kind of innovation British Columbians — and indeed all Canadians — should be celebrating.

Michael Fergusson is CEO of Vancouver-based Ayogo. Jennifer Chan is vice-president of policy and external affairs at Merck Canada.

BCTECH Summit Digital Healthcare Innovation - Vancouver Sun