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Weight Loss Success Linked to Telehealth Coaching, mHealth Devices

A new study finds that a telehealth platform offering one-on-one coaching and an mHealth app connected to wireless devices can lead to "significant" reductions in weight and body mass and an increase in activity for those struggling with obesity.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- A telehealth program combining video coaching and self-monitoring through mHealth devices can lead to a “significant weight loss” among participants, according to a new study.

As reported in the Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare, a 12-week weight loss program that included weekly video visits with a health coach and an mHealth app linked to a Bluetooth-enabled wireless scale, blood pressure monitor and accelerometer resulted in clinically significant weight loss for almost 70 percent of the participants.  

By contrast, a control group with access to the same wireless devices but not weekly telehealth coaching sessions saw only 8 percent of participants losing a significant amount of weight, and there was a “significant difference” in both body weight loss and percent body weight loss between the two groups.

The difference, researchers said, was the telehealth coaching platform, which gave participants real-time access to a health coach who could review real-time data from the mHealth devices and offer information and encouragement.

The study, conducted by researchers at California State University at Long Beach, the University of Saint Mary, UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine and InHealth Medical Services, pushes the narrative that telehealth programs that include online coaching and wireless devices can help patients lose weight and improve clinical outcomes.

Research like this is an important tool in the development of health and wellness programs targeting obesity, diabetes management, cardiac care and other chronic conditions. Telehealth advocates also hope to convince the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to include these types of programs in Medicare reimbursement plans such as the Diabetes Prevention Program.

In the study, participants were enrolled in a 12-week program that made use of American Well’s Amwell site and app, the MyFitnessPal site and wireless devices made by Withings. Weekly health coaching sessions were conducted one-on-one with a registered dietitian based on education materials sent to the participant that week.

According to the study, the group with access to telehealth coaching lost an average of 16 pounds, while the control group lost on average, about 3 pounds. Mean percent body weight loss came in at almost 16 pounds, compared to 3.3 pounds for the control group, and the decrease in body fat percentage was almost 20 percent compared to almost 3 percent in the control group.

Those with access to video coaching also a greater increase in weekly steps, while there were no significant difference in systolic blood pressure or diastolic blood pressure between the two groups.

The study’s lead author, Michelle K. Alencar of CSULB’s Kinesiology Department, says telehealth programs that include both mHealth devices and telehealth coaching could go a long way toward tackling the more than two-thirds of US adults classified as being obese, and for which the nations spends more than $147 billion a year in healthcare costs.

And while there are many weight loss programs and apps available, she said, very few include wellness coaching through a telehealth channel.

“Despite the improved accessibility to telehealth platforms supporting video conferencing, its application to reduce excess body weight has not been widely adopted in structured weight loss programs,” she and her colleagues wrote in the study’s introduction.

Alencar and her colleagues said the trial worked because participants were able to combine one-on-one telehealth coaching with self-monitoring through the connected mHealth devices.

“Participants were able to set goals and be accountable to their health coach using the mHealth tools for immediate feedback,” they noted. “Self-monitoring is the most common reason individuals download mobile apps or purchase mHealth devices. The action of logging health-related information into the application, including food choices, weight and/or exercise duration, provides instantaneous feedback for the user. However, without direct feedback from a healthcare provider, self-monitoring is not often enough to promote long-term engagement or change.”

Alencar and her colleagues concluded that “the use of weekly video conferencing with a health coach and educational modules (is) an effective form of treatment for obesity by reducing body weight and increasing physical activity.” The best platform for that treatment, they said, is a mobile app-based program that combines mHealth devices with video coaching.

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