Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is the most common liver disease in the world, impacting between around a fifth and a quarter of the population in the West. It’s estimated that up to one in every three people in the UK has the early stages of NAFLD – where there are small amounts of fat in their liver.
It is linked to Type-2 Diabetes, strokes and heart attacks, and like these diseases, is both preventable and largely linked to the lifestyle choices we make. Detected early enough, it is also reversible.
I recently discovered the reach and impact of this disease when I had the good fortune to interview Dr William Alazawi, Reader & Consultant in hepatology at the Blizard Institute at Queen Mary University of London.
Working in East London, where a third of all 10 or 11 year olds are overweight or obese, Dr Alazawi has dedicated his career to reducing the number of people suffering from liver disease – through early detection with regular testing and improved awareness around positive lifestyle choices.
This is a mighty challenge. Getting people to the GP for testing is difficult and we already know that awareness around how to get tested, healthy nutrition and where and how to exercise isn’t ubiquitous. This is despite the public health initiatives that take up a large proportion of preventative health spending and the many, and arguably more successful, healthy-eating campaigns run by celebrity chefs.
But as we know, enabling people to live healthier lives is an extremely complex and multi-faceted problem. The reality for many patients Dr Alazawi sees is that busy schedules, strained personal finances and poor access to health services or sports and recreation facilities have directly impacted their health.
These campaigns are mostly focused on awareness – showing that, on the whole, we’re all eating too much energy rich food and not moving enough. Of course, in some cases, these choices are made because of a lack of knowledge or awareness, but in others, they are hardly choices at all – decisions made out of necessity and a lack of any suitable alternative.
That’s because awareness is only half the battle. For many people, just getting through the critical elements of their day (looking after children, caring for elderly members of their family and working) take up so much time that proactively making healthy lifestyle choices or going to the GP for the right test, simply gets pushed down and then off the ‘to do list’.
In order to reduce the incidents of gateway and preventable diseases, like NAFLD, we need to improve how we share information and educate people, but we also need to reduce the friction associated with accessing the testing and monitoring which can detect these illnesses before they become a problem.
We need to ensure these choices are not a burden, making them easier to understand and use. Imagine if we could empower people with more information about their own health, giving them access to data about how their lifestyle really is impacting their well-being without it feeling like a chore, or an impossible task?
Step-counters and health-trackers on smartphone apps, despite being relatively new, are becoming ubiquitous and have already been paving the way for this shift towards data-powered awareness. To some, they will still be a luxury, but 85 per cent of the UK now own a smartphone, so access to this kind information is more widely available today than it’s ever been.
Beyond that, the health-at-home market is growing rapidly beyond movement trackers and app-enabled nutrition monitoring. There are fascinating bodies of science emerging around DNA and gut health, for example, but blood-testing is still the most validated and powerful way to understand what is going on within our bodies, and how our lifestyle is impacting it.
Instead of Dr Alazawi having to encourage people to attend surgery to take a blood test for liver function, imagine if they were able to do that test from the comfort of their home, and subsequently access information about the right foods to eat, or exercise to do, without having to disrupt their day-to-day lives. Testing and data on it’s own won’t necessarily change behaviour but it has to start with frictionless access to the hard facts about your physical state. Armed with the right data and insights, you create an opportunity to use modern behaviour change programs that are both low cost and high impact (in many cases).
As I’ve stated previously, seeing this type of technology widely adopted will not be an overnight transition and as we know, there is no magic wand to improve awareness but what is clear is that new opportunity to improve access abound.
I believe that through technological advances which remove the barriers to information and empower individuals to make better decisions about their health in the long-term, we can keep people healthier for longer, reducing the burden on our health system and our society as a whole.
Hamish Grierson is CEO and Co-Founder of Thriva, the preventative health-service offering finger-prick blood tests you can do at home.