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Can tech make us healthier?

At HealthCamp SFBay, hundreds of leaders from various industries gather to explore the role of tech in improving health and fitness.

SAN LEANDRO, Calif.--While it's unlikely that we can tweet our way out of the obesity epidemic, social media does offer some opportunities to shift some of the factors that have led to our society's expanding waistlines.

Already there are plenty of services aimed at creating online communities for dieters or for people to post their workout successes online. And it's clear that Twitter and Facebook offer opportunities for positive reinforcement, online community and peer pressure to encourage healthier choices. But, despite a lot of innovation, just how to best harness social media is still a tricky challenge.

Online health image

"How do you change the choices that people make?" said Fred Trotter, who works using open-source software in the health care field. "My doctor tells me the same thing every time I go--you need to lose weight. I still can't lose 30 pounds."

One of the keys is that, to be successful, programs have to be fun, said Rod Falcon, of the Institute for the Future. He pointed to a program--Cryptozoo--that his group created in partnership with the American Heart Association. The effort encouraged people to do various exercises in public places to unlock virtual "urban monsters."

"A lot of us when we look at physical surroundings, we really don't see it full of opportunities to play," Falcon said. Cryptozoo could have been made even more fun by tapping social media and technology to bring the program's characters to life.

The discussion on social media yesterday was part of HealthCamp SFBay, an "unconference" devoted to looking at how technology can be used to improve health and fitness. The unconference part refers to the fact that most of the time was spent in sessions organized spontaneously by the participants themselves.

After a few introductory comments from Permanente Federation Executive Director Jack Cochran and Health and Human Services CTO Todd Park, panelists threw out options for different break-out sessions. Nearly all of the suggestions were written down and pasted into one of dozens of slots. For the next four hours--the bulk of the event--participants met in small groups to discuss the topics the attendees had created.

In addition to the unusual format, the event also had an unconventional location--Kaiser Permanente's Garfield Center, a lab that the health care origanization uses to try out new technologies before moving them into the real world. Because it has few conference rooms, the sessions were held in locations ranging from a prototype future operating room to a new mini-clinic that Kaiser imagines adding to existing locations like community centers and corporate campuses.

The social-media session brought together several people from Kaiser, a few people from fitness-related start-ups, as well as a number of people intrigued by the topic. Several members of the Kaiser contingent pointed to an internal effort the company had called Thrive Across America, where Kaiser workers entered their exercise online and earned points that could unlock video tours of other Kaiser facilities. There was also a competitive element, allowing employees to gather in teams.

"It was great," said Kaiser employee Royce Everone. "I loved it."

Trotter pointed to the book "Nudge," which shows how a variety of small changes can have a big impact on behavior. Casinos, for example, do a variety of things to make losing money an enjoyable effort. First of all, they make it easier to stay than to leave. They also eliminate clocks and windows that remind us of time and space. Finally, they add the element of chance and variability. No one would put a dollar in a change machine that returned 70 cents. But plenty of people will play a slot machine that might only return a fraction of what they put in.

Adapting some of those principles to exercise is a good idea, agreed HealthCamp attendee Steven Dean. He noted that he has subscribed to a number of services that sent text messages encouraging him to exercise more. Typically, though, the services sent roughly the same message at roughly the same time.

"After about three days it becomes nagging and I turn it off," he said. However, he's been using one service, Healthtxts, for about three months now. The key is that it sends its message at random times. "It's never felt nagging," he said.

The discussion on social media was just one of the impromtu panels. Other topics ranged from protecting the privacy of electronic health records to using cell phones to provide care to disadvantaged populations.

In his morning keynote speech, Cochran talked about the need to think creatively about how technology can help bridge the gap between an aging population with greater health needs and a medical staff filled with few primary care doctors and too many nurses nearing retirement age.

Now playing: Watch this: Unleashing data to improve health care

Technology, he said, has the potential to democratize health care the way that the printing press freed monks from having to spend their time copying the Bible.

"Our jobs are changing but we are not going away," said Cochran, himself a practicing physician. "We still need healers."

Park, for his part, talked about some of the benefits the government is already seeing by making its vast data collection available electronically to researchers and entrepreneurs.

One key, he said, is making health care more interesting to the masses. A real hero, he suggested will be the person who comes up with the Farmville of health care, a reference to the popular Facebook game.

A new initiative known as the "Blue Button" program will allow veterans and Medicare beneficiaries to download their health records to their computer, paving the way for personal health records, improved research, and more.

The biggest thing that government can do, Park suggested, is open up the data and get out of the way.

"The smartest people don't work for you and they don't work for the government," he told the crowd. "But if you can harness their energy you can [do] amazing things."