Nudging digital health with David Halpern

We talk to the British psychologist who specialises in getting big results from small well-judged inputs.

David Halpern is a British psychologist who has specialised in recent years in advising governments on how the findings of behavioural science can be formulated as policy “nudges”. We recently had the pleasure of hosting him for a presentation and workshop on how these ideas could be of value in digital health.

Q: In your career you've advised on many different fields. How does digital health compare to the other fields you've examined? Are there any unique challenges to our work?

Digital health is at the intersection of two of big areas of focus. More than half of healthy years of life lost are estimated to be a result of behavioural or lifestyle factors. In other words, smoking, diet, exercise, but also less obvious factors such as social isolation, unsafe sex, and not completing medication.

At the same time, digital opens the door to new and affordable solutions. More subtly, digital makes possible much more rapid identification, testing and scaling of new and evolving solutions.

Put them together, and you can see why digital health is a very exciting space. Of course, its very power means that we also need to be sure to bring the public with us on this journey: – it’s their lives, their data, and it should be for them to set the parameters of the space in which we work.

Q: You're a psychologist by training, but often described as a "behavioural economist". Is this a label you're comfortable with? How are you different from a "common or garden" economist or psychologist?

I’m pretty relaxed about the label – the important bit is that we’re bringing a more realistic understanding of how people think, decide and act – including the influences on that behaviour – to make better predictions and better outcomes.

As a fellow psychologist, I’ve some sympathy with Danny Kahneman’s gentle frustration with the term ‘behavioural economist’, which seems a bit cheeky, so if I had to choose I’d go with behavioural scientist. But the fundamental point is that we’re actually breaking out of the Academy, to develop and apply this knowledge and methods to make a difference to policy and practice, and ultimately to people’s lives.

Q: More generally, how receptive have Australian audiences been to your advice, compared to their overseas counterparts?

Australia has been an early and effective adopter of behavioural science applied to public policy. Though the USA (with Cass at the Whitehouse in 2009) and the UK (with the creation of the BIT in No10 in 2010) were faster of the mark, Australian policymakers have been quick to follow. NSW DPC contracted BIT in 2012 to help build its capability and today has one of the strongest teams in the hemisphere: NSW BIU have a track record of strong results and has current projects that are world leading, such as on domestic violence. VicHealth was another early adopter, including its work on obesity, and more recently Victoria DPC has set up its own team. Canberra also now has the 35-person BETA now up and running, while departments such as Employment have been building their own dedicated capability.

Furthermore, Australia was the first country to host the annual Behavioural Exchange conference (BX), and will be the first to host it for a second time in June 2018.

Given this background, it will be interesting to see what you do around digital health!