Digital health monitoring.

How AI can help tackle obesity

18 June 2024

The article at a glance

Digital techniques including AI can help aging societies change behaviour and reduce costs to combat obesity and diabetes, says research co-authored at Cambridge Judge.

Vincent Mak.
Professor Vincent Mak

Digital and artificial intelligence solutions to obesity are needed to reduce medical costs in an aging society, says research co-authored by Yohsuke Takasaki, an Executive MBA graduate (EMBA 2020) of Cambridge Judge, and by Professor Vincent Mak. 

The research was published by the UK Parliament’s Food, Diet & Obesity Committee. 

Population aging is linked to an increase in non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes, hypertension and cancer, so it is imperative to shift focus from conventional expensive medicine and surgery to tech-driven prevention and treatment, says the research. 

How AI advances can personalise clinical interventions 

“Digital health and therapeutics (DH/DTx), are both necessary and effective in finding a solution to a root cause of NCDs – unhealthy behaviour – and is now attracting attention”, says the research. 

“This trend is accelerated by advancement in artificial intelligence, which has tremendous potential in generating deep insights from health-related big data and real-world data – and in personalising clinical interventions in order to steer people’s behaviour in healthier directions”. 

The paper is co-authored by Professor Yohsuke Takasaki, a physician and former health official in the Japanese government who is an Executive MBA graduate (EMBA 2020) of Cambridge Judge; Vincent Mak, Professor of Marketing & Decision Sciences at Cambridge Judge; and Professor Ichiro Kawachi, who has taught at the Harvard School of Public Health since 1992. 

The parliamentary committee’s publication of the research underscores the practical impact of research at Cambridge Judge, and the paper specifically thanks the role of Tamsin Varney, Research Engagement and Impact Manager at the Business School.

Digital health and therapeutics (DH/DTx), are both necessary and effective in finding a solution to a root cause of non-communicable diseases – unhealthy behaviour – and is now attracting attention.

Digital health study chooses Japan due to aging population 

The paper focuses on Japan as a case study: Japan is a rapidly aging society with escalating healthcare costs related to non-communicable diseases, so the country is seeking to implement Digital health and therapeutic (DH/DTx)-driven preventative solutions. 

The research finds that the use of DH/DTx interventions in Japan has been cost-effective and financially viable, suggesting that they offer a competitive alternative to traditional interventions while significantly reducing the financial cost of diabetes on the healthcare system. 

“Japan’s efforts in tackling these issues by promoting DH/DTx could thus serve as a model for other countries, including LMICs (low- and middle-income countries), offering a blueprint for addressing these challenges more swiftly and efficiently”, the research says. 

Digital health and therapeutics (DH/DTx) have the potential to treat almost any disease 

DH/DTx, unlike traditional medical treatments such as surgery, “have the potential to prevent and treat almost all diseases, including obesity, caused by individual cognition and behaviour by encouraging behavioural change towards healthier diets, drinking habits, increased physical activity, and smoking cessation”, the authors say. 

“This represents an area that was difficult to approach with traditional medical treatments, such as drugs or surgical procedures. For example, it is difficult to imagine becoming able to quit smoking through surgery or increasing vegetable intake by taking a pill”. 

Research shows financial incentives help improve people’s health-related behaviours 

The research undertakes a systematic review of prior studies related to the potential of digital health and therapeutics, particularly through the application of behavioural economics and IT in managing chronic diseases such as obesity and Type 2 Diabetes. 

“It’s clear from the prior studies that thoughtfully designed financial incentives, aligned with human psychological tendencies, can motivate health-related behaviours”, says co-author Vincent Mak. “The studies have also shown clear promise from IT solutions, including wearable devices, smartphone apps and text messaging in disease self-management and helping to facilitate weight loss. 

“Traditional medical treatment including surgery clearly has its role in many situations”, says Vincent. “But there are many diseases and conditions, and obesity is a key one, in which lifestyle and behaviour are crucial factors, so digital solutions and artificial intelligence have an essential role to play, and these solutions can help reduce medical costs in our aging societies”. 

At Cambridge Judge, the El-Erian Institute of Behavioural Economics & Policy focuses on topics such as how more healthy lifestyles can be promoted through nudge messaging via technology and other methods. 

The use of AI in health 

The use of AI in this area, concentrated mostly in the US and UK, has so far focused on health promotion and behavioural modification through such methods as remote monitoring, gamification and online coaching, say the authors. 

Yet application of such AI solutions is still in early stages: “A notable gap in the utilisation of scientific and clinical evidence, alongside a deficiency in medical expertise among company leadership, raises questions about the […] capacity of these ventures”, says the paper presented to the parliamentary committee. 

The paper also cites regulatory barriers to such tech applications, spotlighting the need for greater global harmonisation of regulation in the digital health and therapeutics (DH/DTx) sector. 

“New and innovative products for DH/DTx rely on ICT and AI technologies. Therefore, many start-ups are emerging that have sufficient expertise in ICT and AI to take tremendous risks”, the authors say. “As far as regulatory registration and schemes that affect market situation are concerned, global efforts to harmonise regulatory systems among countries are needed, as such systems are still barriers to entry for innovators and start-ups”. 

How much of the world’s population will be obese by 2035? 

The authors underline the financial implications of an aging population and obesity. 

“Since 1975, global obesity rates have nearly tripled. By 2016, over 1.9 billion adults aged 18 and older were classified as overweight, with more than 650 million suffering from obesity. This statistic indicates that approximately 39% of the adult population is overweight, while 13% are obese. 

Even if obesity were to remain at 2010 levels (with a 5% prevalence), the estimated medical expenditure over the following 2 decades would be nearly $550 billion. “These statistics underscore the urgent need for global initiatives to address the spread of obesity through improvements in medical policies, awareness campaigns, and interventions in lifestyle”, the authors say. 

The parliamentary committee was told that obesity is “not a single-cause illness”, but is instead caused by multiple factors that lead to weight gain including food intake, metabolism and a lack of physical activity owing to increasingly sedentary urban lifestyles. According to The World Obesity Atlas 2023, unless there is significant improvement, current trends indicates that over half the global population will be overweight or obese within 12 years.

These statistics underscore the urgent need for global initiatives to address the spread of obesity through improvements in medical policies, awareness campaigns, and interventions in lifestyle.

Fighting obesity by working together: governments should team up with business and academia 

An interdisciplinary approach to digital solutions to obesity among government, business and academia should be promoted with strong governmental push to encourage an ecosystem of associated ventures, the research concludes. 

The importance of collaboration among pharmaceutical firms, medical device manufacturers and DH/DTx ventures is also emphasised given the increasing cost and risks of medical innovation. 

This article was published on

18 June 2024.