Going Online to Challenge Chronic Disease

By Niamh Cremins

A new app focused on preventative health interventions takes on osteoarthritis.

Chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, depression, lung cancer and osteoarthritis are leading causes of illness, disability and death in Australia.

As lifestyles change, our population ages, and people generally live longer, such ailments account for an ever-growing burden on a personal level as well as in the health care sector.

According to a recent Medibank report, chronic disease is an underlying cause in nine out of 10 deaths, making this one of the biggest health challenges facing Australia today.

There is evidence that healthy diets and exercise can have significant preventative and pre-emptive health benefits — benefits that may control the symptoms and reduce the risk of chronic diseases, and hopefully delay their onset.

And that’s where Cedar Health, a Melbourne-based health tech start-up, comes in with some affordable, accessible and evidence-based options designed to give Australians in their forties and beyond a fighting chance to fend off such maladies.

Mark and James
The Founders and Directors of Cedar Health, Mark Szabo and James Holston both completed the Bachelor of Commerce (Hons) at the University of Melbourne

Co-founders Mark Szabo (BCom (Hons) 2010) and James Holston (BCom (Hons) 2010) launched Cedar to help tackle the risks and consequences of chronic disease. Their online platform delivers personalised fitness and nutrition programmes and provides ongoing support for long-term behavioural change.

“Everyone knows that if you’re physically fit and eat well, your risk of chronic disease is low,” says Szabo. “The part that many people fail to understand — and the biggest challenge for companies like ours — is that even if you’re not fit or in shape, just making small changes to your lifestyle can significantly lower your chronic disease risk.”

Many alternative interventions in the market offer quick wins with little personalised intervention, he says. Or, they come at high cost, such as those involving personal coaches.

“There are a lot of programs out there promising incredible results for not a lot of work,” says Szabo. “We didn’t want to go down that path; our aim is long-term effectiveness, and that’s why the personalised aspect is so important. And, of course, it also has to be cost-effective.”

After recruiting leading experts in fitness and nutrition, Szabo and Holston needed to create a forward-thinking user experience (UX) to deliver their personalised vision in a digital environment. Engaging user-interface design is core to Cedar Health’s product experience and its ethos.

Testing their initial model, it quickly became evident that two-way communication would play a vital role in the effectiveness of the program. If one-way email communication wasn’t enough to keep the test group engaged, they wouldn’t see the results they wanted.

“We’re so proud of where we’ve taken Cedar Health,” says Szabo. “What started as a tool has now become a companion.”

App 2
Users can track their progress and change the program to meet their personal needs

Now, it’s possible to set targets, track progress, and provide feedback to qualified physios and dietitians on their platform. If something’s not working, it can be adapted on the basis of customer feedback. No two individuals’ programs are rarely, if ever, the same.

With future-proofing in mind, and their eyes firmly fixed on insurers in the short term and government involvement over the longer term, Cedar Health adapted its vision for a general health program to focus on a condition that affects one in every 13 Australians. Osteoarthritis is a type of joint disease that results from breakdown of joint cartilage and underlying bone causing joint pain and stiffness.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), 24 per cent of people with osteoarthritis described themselves to be in just fair to poor health compared with about 13 per cent without the condition. In just one year, AIHW recorded a 32 per cent increase in knee replacements and a 25 per cent rise in hip replacements due to osteoarthritis.

“Osteoarthritis is a serious issue in Australia,” says Szabo. “In addition to offering our product through insurers, we also want to actively target people who are suffering from early-stage osteoarthritis, to help them make a difference early.”

Cedar Health says they can help those on public waiting lists by working closely with state and federal governments.

“There are a lot of people on waiting lists for surgery; surgery that they may not necessarily need. If we target those on waiting lists, we can provide interventions in the lead-up to surgery and help people to improve their condition or even recover entirely.”

Not content to tackle just one chronic disease, Cedar Health has begun data collection and research into diabetes and heart disease, for which they plan to launch similar online programs in the future.

Find out more about Cedar Health.