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Lending people Palm Pilots (personal digital assistants) to help them monitor their eating habits and to provide constant feedback and other information can change harmful behaviors, according to a US expert in disease prevention.
The Internet, cellular phones, text messaging and handheld computers (PDAs) can each be used to reach specific groups at high risk of disease, Prof. Karen Glanz of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, said on Monday.
Glanz, an expert in behavioral science, health education and epidemiology at the university's Rollins School of Public Health, told the 12th annual National Conference on Health Education and Promotion at the Knesset Towers Hotel in Jerusalem that the digital age offered new ways to improve people's lifestyles.
She conducted a diet modification study - part of the giant Women's Health Initiative - on 36 women with an average age of 64 who were at risk for chronic diseases. The Women's Health Initiative, she said, has operated for 10 years in an effort to get women to adopt a low-fat diet rich in grains, fruits and vegetables. The women are being tested to see if these changes reduce heart disease, cancer and osteoporosis. "But getting women to comply with instructions is the most difficult [thing]," she said.
In the Palm Pilot study, the devices were lent to the subjects, all of whom lived in Hawaii and had never used a handheld digital device or a computer. The participants received digital menus listing various types of foods; they had to punch in what they ate, how many servings and portion sizes - getting in return summaries of what they ate, charts on how far they veered from recommendations, personalized feedback and positive reinforcement.
"We also had a phone line to answer questions. We found that they were able to monitor what they were eating easier and faster. In a month," Glanz reported, "they had reduced their daily intake by 120 calories a day and even cut their fat intake.
"They all said they liked the Palm Pilot and the feedback it gives. We don't know if positive behaviors would continue over time, but we believe the technique can be useful for dealing with diabetics and the obese."
Personalizing information is effective in reaching people at high risk for specific disorders, said Glanz, who has performed research on encouraging people at high risk for colorectal cancer to go for screening, and those vulnerable to skin cancer to avoid the sun, use sunscreen and get moles examined by a doctor. Tailoring messages to high-risk individuals and targeting high-risk groups does more good, she said, than directing general health messages to the entire population, which is expensive and often ineffective.
Health Minister Ya'acov Ben-Yizri, told the approximately 200 health promotion nurses and other professionals at the conference that disease prevention was vital, although it was difficult to get budgets for it.
Ministry associate director-general Dr. Boaz Lev said that while curative medicine must remain at the current level, the importance of disease prevention and health promotion must be presented to the government and the Knesset so it can receive increased funding. Ethnic, religious and other groups who know little about disease prevention must be targeted, Lev said. He also urged that Likud MK Gilad Erdan's private member's bill to fine owners of establishments where no-smoking laws are violated, and not just the smokers, "must be passed, and soon."
A feature on the conference will appear on the Health Page on Sunday, December 3.