• April 23, 2024

All in the Mind

 All in the Mind
Photo: andriano_cz

A human-centric health ecosystem could unleash tobacco harm reduction’s full potential.

By Stefanie Rossel

In their efforts to end the era of combustible cigarettes, governments, public health authorities and other stakeholders today have a much larger toolkit at their disposal than they did at the turn of the millennium—at least in theory because only a fraction of available strategies are currently being employed.

Due to increasing connectivity, the Fourth Industrial Revolution has brought rapid changes to technology, industries and society. It is also transforming the healthcare system—insurance companies seeking to promote a healthy lifestyle by asking their customers to use wearable devices that record physical activity and calorie intake are just one example.

In order to better deal with today’s complex challenges, healthcare has in recent years become more human-centric, striving to understand human needs and how design—both the process of designing and the outcome of that process—can respond to these needs. “Design” in this context refers not only to products, services and procedures but also to strategies and policies.

A human-centric health ecosystem (HCHE) involves understanding people and their needs, engaging stakeholders throughout the design process and systematically addressing interactions between the micro-level, meso-level and macro-level of sociotechnical care systems as well as the transition of individual interests to collective interests.

This new approach to healthcare requires a holistic systemic approach, major organizational change and well-designed, dedicated interventions, such as products, services or procedures to be used by patients, caregivers and medical professionals to facilitate and implement the system.

The role of the patient in this system changes accordingly: Instead of being a passive recipient of medical directions, he or she becomes a well-informed, responsible patient, intrinsically motivated to actively contribute to the success of his or her treatment. In contrast to the traditional approach, he or she doesn’t simply passively comply with instructions and wait for professionals to solve their problems but makes use of a technology-enabled ecosystem with an embedded choice architecture that encourages the desirable behavior and seeks support from a variety of sources.

This healthcare model is shifting the focus from treatment toward prevention. Centralized, capital-intensive diagnostics facilities will be aided and perhaps even replaced by individual, on-demand or continuous inexpensive and readily available technologies, such as the mentioned wearables. Sensors in these devices generate data that enable disease prevention with the help of machine learning. Diagnostic and treatment data could be collected in a global database that practitioners can access but that is owned by the patients. Finally, instead of applying homogeneous therapies across groups of patients with similar health issues, treatments are likely to become more personalized.

Behavioral Triggers

The novel concept also holds promise for the prevention of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), for which tobacco use is one of the greatest risk factors. The U.K.’s progressive tobacco harm reduction (THR) strategy, for example, incorporates many HCHE components. It has established a comprehensive infrastructure that includes institutions and healthcare professionals to help smokers to switch to less hazardous products or quit nicotine altogether. In 2017, the U.K. launched a Tobacco Control Plan that stresses the importance of innovation and less harmful alternatives. According to studies, the U.K.’s approach has been able to reduce smoking prevalence from around 20 percent in 2011 to between 13.8 percent and 16 percent in 2021.

But the HCHE model offers further opportunities. Focusing on the individual and his or her perceptions, intentions and behaviors influencing personal health results, it is a demand-driven structure. Personal health outcomes, in turn, will ultimately influence population health. A fully developed HCHE environment uses a vast range of behavioral triggers that can encourage healthy decisions and eventually impact the incidence and prevalence of NCDs.

At the 2017 World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Willis Towers Watson published a white paper assessing the progress in preventing NCDs with the help of behavioral economics as part of the Human-Centric Health project. According to the white paper, mortality rates due to NCDs are projected to increase from 38 million to 62 million by 2040. While NCDs presently impact mostly high-income countries, they are growing fastest in low-income and middle-income countries.

Participants in the Human-Centric Health project were tasked to develop and disseminate knowledge and tools for behavioral changes that would lead to long-term healthier lifestyles. The experts were also asked to identify public-private cooperation opportunities across nontraditional health and healthcare stakeholders, for which the WEF could provide a platform. The project touched upon smoking cessation but did not make use of the THR concept.

Making Healthy Choices

Human decision-making depends heavily on heuristics, mental shortcuts that can facilitate problem-solving in situations of limited knowledge and time. Heuristic processes are based on experience, thus enabling people to quickly make the thousands of decisions they must make every day. Not all precepts of behavioral economics, though, lead to choices that support good health. The WEF white paper reviews some of the more powerful principles in behavioral economics that may contribute to healthier behavior within the HCHE if being applied appropriately.

“Present bias,” for example, is a strong motivator: Humans tend to assign greater value to payoffs that are closer to the present time than those that occur further in the future—if people want something, they want it immediately. A strategy for health improvement should thus present choices that combine a current pleasure with a behavior that will lead to better health in the future and emphasize the near-term advantages of healthy behavior rather than the benefits that might be achieved later. A case study described by the white paper suggested glycemic control in diabetes patients reliant on food banks could be improved by providing clients with diabetes-appropriate food, blood sugar monitoring, primary care referral and self-management support.

Another behavioral trigger is loss aversion: People sense the pain of loss more deeply than the pleasure of gain. Recently, this insight has been used in initiatives to encourage smoking cessation: Smokers received a payment at the outset of the program, which they would be forced to pay back if they failed to keep their commitment to quit smoking.

Health choices can also be influenced by framing—by expressing the consequences of disease in survival rates rather than mortality rates, for example—even if the results are equal. The HCHE system may emphasize benefits that can be achieved through a specific action or the ease of healthy behavior compared with other activities people voluntarily decide on.

The HCHE system also takes advantage of the knowledge that humans respond better to narratives than logic or statistics. By telling compelling stories that people can relate to, health practitioners can drive healthier behaviors. Of course, facts must be given accurately, but data alone don’t necessarily drive change.

Humans are also subject to social norms—a person married to or friendly with smokers is more likely to smoke than a person without such relationships, according to the white paper. Findings like this, however, can also be used to achieve a positive effect—for example, by incorporating social media and influencers into information campaigns or asking people to make public commitments to future change.

Choice architecture and defaults can nudge people toward healthier decisions. In a realm of choices, humans tend to stay with a default as it takes less energy than making an active decision and allows them to focus on more important concerns. A prominent display of healthy food in shops, for example, can thus help people make healthier choices.

Humans’ tendency toward “irrational optimism” and “depletion” are additional behavioral triggers that can be taken advantage of to stimulate desirable behaviors. Including a lottery element in health incentives will generate attention at low cost. As people only have a limited span of attention, health improvement efforts should focus on measures with the most potential benefit while requiring the least cognitive effort of the targeted population.


A successful HCHE, the white paper argues, resembles a consumer purchase model in which informed buyers express demands that support their well-being and stakeholders succeed by recognizing and meeting those demands. The paper identifies three actors that can greatly impact NCDs—insurers, retailers and technology.

Insurers can contribute to the HCHE by providing health assistance, for instance, through health coaching, paying healthcare claims and providing incentives, such as rewards to encourage smoking cessation. They can also provide information about achieving and maintaining health, including health risk assessments, biometric screening and education.

Next to increasing their inventories of healthy items, retailers, who act as a principal source of consumer products and therefore exercise particularly powerful influence over dietary quality, can provide access to selected health services, such as vaccinations on-site, and work with policymakers to develop pricing policies that encourage consumption of healthier foods and beverages. In the case of tobacco, the white paper recommends a reduced inventory, citing the example of CVS Caremark, a U.S. retailer that in 2014 stopped selling cigarettes.

While CVS Caremark’s sales declined during the following year, its decision reduced total cigarette sales by 1 percent across 13 U.S. states while nicotine patch purchases increased by 4 percent immediately after tobacco sales ended.

Health-related technology, the third component mentioned in the report, refers to the application of organized knowledge and skills in the form of devices, medicines, vaccines, procedures and systems developed to solve or prevent a health problem and improve the quality of lives.

For patients suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or asthma, for instance, tracking usage of inhalers that provide vital medication can be challenging. An estimated 70 percent to 90 percent of patients use their inhalers improperly, thus delivering insufficient levels of medication to their lungs. In late 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first digital inhaler with built-in sensors that detect when the inhaler is used and measure breathing. The sensors connect to a smartphone app, recording data that can be shared with doctors who can evaluate a patient’s inhaler usage. There are many ways that these technologies could be adapted for e-cigarettes, heat-not-burn devices and related products.

The technology sector is also where reduced-risk tobacco products (RRPs) come into play as the gap between recreational and therapeutic inhalers is narrowing. Among recently published patents for nicotine vapor devices and heated-tobacco products, most cover therapeutic innovations, including vaping products that employ sensors (see “In the Pipeline,” page 20).

The combination of new technologies and behavioral economics allow for healthy choices to be the easier choices. Laws that regulate products proportionate to their risk compliment and support this.

Properly integrated into the HCHE, RRPs could drive tremendous progress in public health. The private sector has already realized the potential of RRPs as a smoking cessation tool. It is time for regulators to follow their example.