Getting Physically Active and Cutting Calories via Mobile Apps, Social Media and Technology


November 2015

Southern Nevada Health District (SNHD), which serves 2.1 million residents of Clark County Nevada and more than 40 million visitors annually to Las Vegas, has added new innovative strategies to the Office of Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion’s “Get Healthy Clark County” campaign in the form of mobile applications. The apps—one focused on finding walking, biking and other trails throughout southern Nevada, and another that lets the public calculate the amount of sugar in soda, juices and energy drinks—are among the most recent free consumer-friendly tools and technologies that many public health departments are employing to make their campaigns not only more effective, and but also resonate, with the public.

“SNHD is fortunate to have an innovative Information Technology Services program that collaborates across SNHD to create these popular apps,” says Cassius Lockett, Ph.D., Director of Community Health at Southern Nevada Health District. This mutual relationship launched the Neon to Nature app in late 2014, which allows users to find and customize routes from more than 1,000 miles of walking, hiking, biking and equestrian trails in Southern Nevada. The app supports department efforts to reduce the prevalence of obesity and to get more residents of Las Vegas and several other area communities to get active. Department efforts in recent years have helped to reduce the rate of obesity among adults, from 31.3 percent in 2008 to 25.8 percent in 2012. Officials expect the app to help their efforts.

“The Neon to Nature app has been well received by the community,” says Lockett. The app has been downloaded nearly 3,600 times. “I love this app,” notes resident Laura Fucci in a user review. “It takes me quickly to trails close to me so I can plan a walk or ride. Very convenient.”

The department also released its Sugar Savvy app in 2014 to support and expand its annual summer campaign, called “Soda Free Summer,” to get school-age children and their families to reduce the intake of sugar. The Soda Free Summer campaign and other efforts have helped to reduce sugary drink intake among Clark County adolescents from 23.3 percent in 2007 to 15 percent in 2013. Officials believe the new app, which has been downloaded nearly 200 times already, will help further reduce sugar intake among residents. In early 2015, the department also released an app that allows Nevadans to see the letter grades resulting from health department inspections of 14,500 restaurants. Within six months, over 3,000 people have downloaded the app.

“In the next 5 years, most companies including public health organizations will have to invest moderately in information technology,” says Lockett. “The use of mobile technology and open data portals is driving public innovation and encouraging essential collaboration with public partner agencies and the private sector to develop mobile apps to promote and protect public health. While public health agencies have developed many free mobile apps, increasingly they’ll have to be prepared to improve apps and measure their scientific effectiveness. Continuous improvement and application evaluation of technologies therefore must be indispensable components of all future public health mobile app development.”

To be sure, public health departments nationwide are introducing apps—as the U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) has recognized the value of them, and itself offers a slew to consumers and health care clinicians—as complements to brochures, television ads and other traditional public outreach efforts. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly two-thirds of Americans own a smartphone as of late 2014. Further, more than 60 percent of smartphone users have looked for health-related information on their smartphones—more than for any other reason.

Apps not only allow public health officials to get messages and helpful information to the community and subpopulations, but mobile technology can track analytics about how the apps are being used and provide insight for developers to enhance the experience for users. In the future the technology may also provide metrics for public health officials to use for planning and evaluation activities. And the department continues to look at expanding its stable of apps.

“Currently in development at SNHD are the Walk Around Nevada and Nutrition Challenge program app and we are in the early stages of exploring resources to produce or adopt an existing salt intake app in the future,” says Lockett. Clark County, for example, has seen hypertension prevalence jump in the last decade, from less than to a quarter of area adults in 2003 to nearly one third in 2013.

Southern Nevada isn’t the only big city health department putting out apps. Some others include:

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s NYC Health smartphone apps are connecting residents to services and information from their mobile devices at no cost, from ABCEats, which gives New Yorkers and visitors instant access to health inspection grades of city restaurants; to CalCutter, which estimates the number of calories for submitted food recipes; to NYC Condom, which finds free condom distribution locations; to Teens in NYC, which discretely links young people with nearby sexual health services.

San Francisco and Los Angeles are among several cities that have teamed up with Yelp, the web-based platform that connects people with local businesses, to post city health officials’ restaurant inspections reports and letter grades. The partnership to get restaurant grades into the hands of consumers is among the latest efforts to reduce incidents of foodborne illness, which sickens more than an estimated 48 million people a year, according to CDC estimates. Meanwhile, Chicago health officials have turned to social media, information technology and smart computing to quickly identify foodborne illness and to squelch potential food-poisoning outbreaks through the Foodborne Chicago, a website allowing residents to report cases of food poisoning. City officials monitor social media to invite those who discuss issues of food poisoning to lodge a complaint on the website.

Santa Clara County (San Jose and its surroundings in California) Vector Control District’s SCCVECTOR mobile app lets residents report problems and get help dealing with possible disease-causing vectors from mosquitoes, rats, fleas, mites, wildlife, and other animals.