Digital health and IBS: The big opportunity

By Nikki Hancocks

- Last updated on GMT

Getty | DragonImages
Getty | DragonImages

Related tags personalised nutrition digital health

Digital therapeutics for IBS is a huge opportunity that has been largely untapped by players in the nutrition industry. Here, personalised nutrition expert Mariette Abrahams outlines the opportunities and challenges in how to get involved in this 'exciting' area of health.

In her recent executive data brief, Dr Abrahams, founder and CEO of personalised nutrition consultancy Qina, points out that IBS is believed to affect around 10% of the global population and yet there is currently not one single effective treatment, with today’s treatments - such as low FODMAP diets, yoga and hypnotherapy - often relying on trial and error.

IBS is an issue that can flare up at any time, often leaving sufferers stumped as to what was the catalyst. This is a key reason why Dr Abrahams sees digital solutions as particularly appropriate.

“The easy integration of crucial real-world evidence (RWE) such as sensor, activity, sentiment, and location data, provides rich contextual information that can be used to connect the dots and provide insight into potential triggers to common symptoms. This real-time approach and continuous feedback can aid in consumer engagement and increases adherence to treatment plans.

“Empowered with knowledge and information, individuals can test which treatments or combination thereof work the best for them without the need for expensive tests and invasive treatments. A digital therapeutic can also provide objective proof that a particular approach is working because they can see and feel their progress on a day by day basis.”

The Portugal-based consultant points to a number of challenges which still need to be overcome, including: recognition of the scientific validity of a completely digital approach, awareness amongst the healthcare professionals as a firstline treatment option, more research into the clinical effectiveness, and personalisation based on individual symptoms.

“However, if I look at the data and follow my gut, the future looks bright,”​ she adds

Current competition

According to Abrahams, the most recognised app that helps individuals with IBS symptoms to select foods and suggest recipes is the Monash Low FODMAP app, developed by Monash University in Australia. However, she points out that this dietary approach only addresses one aspect of IBS management.

Berlin-based start-up Cara Care, was launched by two medical doctors in 2016 and has over 500,000 downloads in the German and US markets. The free symptom tracking app is designed for individuals suffering from digestive disorders and allows tracking of food consumption, physical activity, mood, bowel habits, and supplement and medicine intake. The app allows the sharing of data with a healthcare professional, it also has access to a team of registered dietitians, as well as 12-week structured programmes that help consumers towards improving their symptoms. 

Myhealthygut app is a Canadian start-up founded by registered dietitian Desiree Nielsen, integrated into the Kore digital health solutions platform. The Kore digital health company is looking at providing digital therapeutic solutions for IBD, colon cancer, skin disorders, and managing the gut-brain axis. The app provides advice on dietary supplements, grocery list, recipe and meal planning as well as interactive journals which can be shared via email with a healthcare professional.

Opportunity for nutrition companies

Abrahams says that companies selling health-focused food, drink and supplements may find this developing avenue can help prove the effectiveness of a product, increase engagement and provide important insight into customer behaviour

“The bundling of digital therapeutics products with food, ingredients or consumer health brands is an opportunity that certainly has not been explored yet, apart from a handful of examples. And of course, coupling digital therapeutics with actual diagnostics such as metabolomics or microbiome testing will provide further insight into the mechanism of why and how users are responding in a particular way.”

With the note that it is important that any new solutions are scientifically validated through inclusive clinical trials, Abrahams gives her tips for those looking to get into this space.

“Conduct social listening to understand your customers and which problems need to be solved. Identify if there are any measurable and self-reported data points that can help a product sell, or be marketed better.

“Assess your current partner ecosystem and available solutions. Obtain Expert opinions on which areas would be suitable for a digital therapeutic approach.

“Ensure solutions can help people with different levels of digital literacy, for example including instructional videos. Another improvement can be that users should be able to access the educational content in a different format, for example being able to print out specific pages or watching online videos.

“To my knowledge, apart from Myhealthygut, it is not possible to download your data from the app in an exportable format. This should be standard as consumers increasingly want to access their own data and analyse it.

“Companies should publish their findings big or small, and share it among health professionals who can become ambassadors for these new solutions. Awareness of digital therapeutics is still very low.

“This can be achieved through healthcare professional influencer marketing, events, online educational sessions, and trade magazines. In addition, conducting research to identify clusters of users could aid in personalising the approach and messaging even further.”

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