Government seeks expressions of interest for design of £5m obesity app

Incentivised apps would use financial rewards to increase levels of physical activity and improve dietary choices among adults.

The government has launched a £5m scheme to design and test incentivised apps with the aim of reducing obesity levels and improving the dietary habits among UK adults.

Crucially incentives should include financial rewards, the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) says, as evidence suggests that impact is only seen when a reward mechanism is in place.

“The challenge for Government in tackling obesity is such that highly ambitious programmes and strategies will need to be deployed now,” the department adds.

The scheme comes after the government’s earlier announcement that it would help support people with obesity. The NHS estimates that 1 in every 4 UK adults is affected by obesity and around 1 in every 5 children aged 10 to 11.

According to the government, the nationwide NHS costs attributable to obesity and obesity-related issues are set to reach £9.7 billion by 2050.

Engaging “harder to reach” groups

“We are interested to understand how existing app-based incentives schemes could be adapted to facilitate sustained behaviour change in the areas of physical activity and diet,” DHSC says.

While the government department expects measures such as step counts, pedometers and food purchasing data, it says it is “keen to explore new or innovative measures”.

The plan is still in its early stages and DHSC is looking for interest from potential suppliers. These parties include SMEs and Voluntary, Community and Social enterprises (VCSEs).

Given the financial reward aspect, the scheme is targeting adults, but the department says it would consider solutions for families and children if “a compelling case can be made”.

It also outlines that the test phase should try to reach those in “harder to reach” groups which includes people from lower socio-economic backgrounds as well as those with poor diets and less active lifestyles.

Design considerations

The NHS app. Courtesy of the NHS

While a smaller test group would be the focus for the first year, the department says that solutions will need to demonstrate potential for a nationwide reach. The long-term aim of the programme is to help the population not just achieve but also sustain healthy weights.

Solutions should align with government policy on physical activity levels and diet and nutrition, the department adds. Though schemes need to be primarily digital, DHSC is open to schemes that engage people who are “not digitally enabled”.

The department adds that branding and marketing will be important for the success of an app. “There will be advantages and disadvantages to this being branding (even in part) as a government funded programme,” DHSC says, adding that government digital assets may be available for better engagement (such as NHS and Public Health England’s Better Health campaign ).

Thought should also be given to data collection, as any platform will have to “store and share data in a necessary and proportionate way, in compliance with GDPR”, the department says. The app will have to work alongside the NHS app and PHE Better Health app.

Funding and application details

A total of £5 million is available to fund the test phase, though it may be split across potential programmes, according to DHSC.

£3 million of this will be used for the “incentivisation element” of the scheme while the remaining £2 million will be used for research and development and supplier costs, the department adds. If the test year is successful, DHSC hopes to scale up the project in 2022-2023. Further funding will be dependent on the government’s review process.

The aim is to test the programme in the fiscal year 2021/22 and DHSC is encouraging groups to collaborate on solutions.

A market engagement day has been set for 14 April and potential SMEs and VCSEs should get into contact with DHSC with their details before 6pm on 12 April.

DHSC says it hopes to open a formal competition in May and announce successful applicants by July so that tests can begin in September and conclude by March next year.

For more information on the scheme’s details and application process, please visit the government’s full briefing document.

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