Embedding behavioural science in digital therapeutics: a multi-dimensional impact
As delivery of healthcare shifts to digital platforms, there is a growing need to incorporate principles of behavioural science into digital health interventions and therapeutics. Behavioural science can inform implementation tactics, personalisation and evaluation strategies, and program content. This may improve long-term success that result in sustainable outcomes.
A crash course in terminology
Digital health interventions and programs are those delivered by digital technology, such as apps, websites and text messages. They offer the potential to provide cost effective and scalable interventions to improve health and healthcare, such as sleep or exercise tracking1. These programs often engage users in health-related topics, and do not require regulatory oversight as they do not meet the regulatory definition of a medical device1.
Digital therapeutics (DTx) on the other hand, are defined by the Digital Therapeutics Alliance as “delivering evidence-based therapeutic interventions to patients that are driven by software to prevent, manage, or treat a medical disorder or disease”2. DTx are a subset of the digital health classification that go beyond health and wellness apps. They may be delivered independently or together with medications, devices, or other therapies to optimize outcomes2,3. Clinical and real-world evidence is required for DTx and, unlike digital health interventions, they are certified by a regulatory body4. They can gather evidence that will impact the user’s treatment plan. Perhaps most notably from a self-management standpoint, they provide greater opportunities to actively engage the patient in their healthcare.
A shift in healthcare
The rise of DTx is expected to drive a shift towards a more ‘consumer-centric’ model of healthcare4. DTx has the potential to enhance patient empowerment, shared decision-making and development of goals based on patient needs4. However, to achieve success, it is crucial for users to not only download the app but also to consistently use it as intended.
The success or failure of a DTx depends on whether people adopt the new technologies, processes, or behaviours being introduced. Ongoing and sustained use requires behaviour change and benefits both the user and product developers. Evidence suggests that embedding behavioural science in digital interventions is key to improving health outcomes5.
Three key benefits of embedding behaviour change principles into DTx
- Improved user adoption
Understanding user behaviours and motivations allows organizations to design tailored and appealing solutions, increasing the likelihood of adoption. Grounding DTx development in behaviour change theories (for example Leventhal’s Common-sense model of self-regulation) and frameworks such as COM-B (learn more at our blog here) can help align and tailor messaging and prompts. This enhances the likelihood the user will engage with the content and adopt the new behaviours.
- Long term engagement
Engagement goes beyond the extent that the patient uses the app. Engagement in DTx is underpinned by the user’s interest in the content and other subjective experiences (such as the look and feel). With informed feedback and engagement strategies, behavioural science is well positioned to enhance digital engagement in both the target behaviour and in the app itself6,7.
- Increased return on investment
In a rapidly growing field with frequent new product launches, behavioural science is well-positioned to enhance the impact of digital health beyond the narrow and oversimplified strategies often seen in commercial products6. Ultimately, if users adopt and stay engaged in the DTx, organisations can maximise their ROI.