Health Tech Podcast: Psychologists become app developers to help people kick addictions

Dr. Jonathan Bricker, left, and Dr. Jaimee Heffner, right. These psychologists have turned to developing apps to help reach people who wouldn’t normally seek help for nicotene addiction. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Do you ever feel like you’re addicted to apps? Or like they really get inside your head? Well, good news: You’re not imagining it.

Introducing GeekWire’s new Health Tech podcast, exploring the frontiers of digital health

App developers know how to take advantage of how our brains work, borrowing tricks from psychology to keep us coming back to our smartphones throughout the day. And as we find out on this episode of GeekWire’s Health Tech podcast, that relationship is a two-way street.

Dr. Jonathan Bricker and Dr. Jaimee Heffner are psychologists and researchers at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, but they’ve turned to app development to create a hybrid of tech and science that can help people stay healthy.

“I think of apps as really allowing behavior science to have a renaissance,” Bricker said. “We’ve found ways to make it a public health intervention, to basically bring this new behavior treatment program to people who would never otherwise think of seeing a mental health professional to address these problems.”

The pair are currently working on apps that help people quit smoking, but that is just the tip of the iceberg on how this combination of science and tech could improve people’s health.

Heffner and Bricker decided to focus on smoking because it has such a huge impact on public health in the United States.

“Smoking is the number one preventable cause of cancer and it’s responsible for about a third of all cancer deaths,” Heffner said.

It also hits certain people, like those with other addictions or mental health issues, particularly hard. For example, “people with heroin dependence are actually more likely to die of tobacco use than they are of the heroin addiction,” she said.

Those numbers are NOT good, but fortunately, the numbers on smartphone use are much better. A recent survey from the Pew Research Center found that over three-fourths of Americans now have smartphones, making them a great way to reach out to people who need help quitting.

“You carry a smartphone with you all the time. So here’s an opportunity to be able to reach someone with useful skills for staying motivated, for dealing with cravings, or dealing with habits that are not helpful to them,” said Bricker, who is also a psychology professor at the University of Washington.

Inside the SmartQuit app, which helps users quit smoking using elements from therapy and psychology research. (2Morrow Image)

Bricker and other researchers, including Heffner, have used their expertise to develop a smartphone app called Smart Quit, which was released on mobile devices in 2014. It’s being commercialized by Seattle startup 2morrow and is currently available through some employers and other groups.

The app uses techniques from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). It’s a type of behavior therapy that helps people recognize intense negative feelings, like anxiety or a nicotine craving, and allow them to pass instead of acting to prevent them.

The app has a catalog of exercises that walk users through a craving, helping them resist the urge to have a cigarette and focus on things that motivate them. Users can choose exercises when they need them, but the app also sends push notifications to keep the users engaged and make sure they’re sticking to their plan.

“There’s a lot of research that goes into how the push notification is worded and when it’s presented to someone, when in the day,” Bricker said.

The developers also spent years studying how effective the app’s different elements are and used that data to change how it is built.

The goal was to make users feel empowered and like they had a solid plan to follow. In short, they wanted to make using Smart Quit feel more like a casual therapy session and less like calling an Uber.

Heffner is also working on a web app in her area of expertise: smokers who have other mental health problems, in this case bipolar disorder.

She says one of the biggest challenges this group faces is the stigma around mental health. Often, smokers will think their other issues mean they just aren’t capable of quitting, and often family members and even doctors will say the same thing.

If they do attempt to quit, the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal also pose a challenge. They’re very similar to many symptoms of mental health disorders, and that can scare patients away from trying to quit because they think it will make their mental health worse.

Bricker is hopefull that an app will be able to reach those people and make quitting easier. The one she’s working on uses elements of Behavior Activation Therapy, a treatment originally designed for depression.

“The goal is to just get them activated again, doing things that are either important or enjoyable,” she said. That motivation then carries over into tackling their nicotine addiction. 

Bricker and Heffner have found themselves in a unique situation: They are scientists who have become technologists almost by accident. But Heffner says the two fields have more in common than we might think.

“Some of what we know to be effective in terms of changing people’s behaviors is already in practice in the technology realm. The app is really doing these basic behavioral principles that we know work,” she said. “The challenge is finding the common language so that we understand what each other are talking about.”

Learn more about Smart Quit at 2morrowinc.com.

Find more Health Tech podcasts at GeekWire.com/healthtech, and subscribe on iTunes, Soundcloud or wherever you listen.

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