This NPR story profiled a health app that’s comprehensive — providing both diet and exercise tracking, education about healthy habits, personal coaching, electronic nudging, and peer support.
The story featured a patient success story (and one less successful one–which was good to see) and briefly described positive data from a pilot study, leading to a rather upbeat take. However, the article did not provide much context for the technology-based treatment program: How do similar programs compare? What are the costs? What are the long-term outcomes? We think such context, and perhaps a dose of skepticism, is absolutely necessary — especially in the weight loss arena where so many seemingly promising ideas wither over time.
Lifestyle factors play a large role in the risk for diabetes, heart disease, and many cancers, and yet people’s personal habits have proven notoriously hard to change. Given that 70% of American adults have excess weight, interventions claiming to aid weight loss are most certainly newsworthy.
At the same time, it’s of utmost importance for news stories to put a new intervention into the context of what’s been tried before — both successful and unsuccessful approaches.
No mention of cost in an article about a technology-based treatment program for improving diet and exercise. Readers learn that one person received a body weight scale when he signed onto the program, which raises a big question — how much does this program cost? What happens cost-wise if you don’t succeed? The program includes personal coaching as well. We always want health stories to mention costs, and for this story on a new, relatively untested weight loss plan, cost seems especially important.
The company’s website doesn’t make this information easy to learn either, but does mention that the cost might be covered by health insurance.
The story quantified the benefits of the treatment program in one study, informing readers that in a study of 200 people at risk for developing diabetes, “75 percent of the participants completed the Omada program and lost at least 5 percent of their body weight. And about 1 in 4 participants lost 7 percent of their body weight or more. ”
Well give this a barely passing satisfactory, though we also wanted to know: What was the average weight loss? How long did it take to lose the weight? How successful are people at keeping the weight off? It’s also useful to point out that there was no control group to measure this program against.
The article did not consider potential harms of the program, but because they do seem relatively minor, we’ll rate this N/A.
Things we did ponder related to risks of using the app: The study results implied that 25% of participants dropped out, but readers are not told why. Was following the program too difficult or not specific enough? Will this be simply one way for people trying to lose weight to fail and give up on improving their health? Do people get any portion of their money back if things don’t work out?
Evidence for the program was based on a pilot study, in which 200 people at risk for developing diabetes tried it out. That may be a good first step in studying a new program for improving diet and exercise, but it does not measure up to a randomized, placebo-controlled study — the gold standard of clinical trials. It’s good that the word “pilot” was used in the article, but we think it needs a bit more explanation. A better approach would be to describe the weaknesses of pilot studies more clearly for readers and warn that the positive results may shrink under more rigorous testing.
The term “prediabetes” is controversial — it’s a warning sign that your weight and blood sugar are above the normal range, but not yet at the threshold for diabetes itself. Using the phrase “diagnosed with prediabetes” blurs that line and makes what is essentially a risk factor sound like a condition requiring treatment.
The story quotes two people who have tried the program, the company CEO, and a doctor who helped run the Utah study. We think readers deserve to hear from independent experts in the field of weight loss or those involved in motivating patients to improve their diets and exercise routines. Their voices would add needed context for this ever-vexing area of health care.
We did want to commend the story for including a personal story about the program that wasn’t fully positive, which helps balance the story out.
The article very briefly mentions that other technology-based programs for improving diet and exercise exist, but does not go into much detail, especially on outcomes. We think it would be useful to have included outcomes from a well-studied program, such as Weight Watchers, or even Virta Health, which recently published some (more) impressive one year results with a similar sounding app.
The article makes clear the Omada program is available and in use around the country and even links to the company website.
The story made clear that the Omada program includes a suite of features, including education, diet and exercise tracking, coaching, electronic nudging, and peer support, delivered to one’s smartphone. What’s relatively new is an app taking such a comprehensive approach.
The article does not appear to rely on a news release.