A woman with a smartphone and a bottle of medication

Improving the health of a community in Ireland

  • Education
  • Research
  • Society

Athy is a medium-sized town, about 80km from Dublin City Centre. Its people reflect the diversity of the population of Ireland, and its health and wellbeing concerns also mirror those of the rest of the country. ­

The Connect5 Athy project, a collaboration between the Digital Health Research Group (DHRG) at RCSI’s Centre for Positive Health Sciences and Sláintecare Healthy Communities Kildare, set out to support the community of Athy to make small changes to improve their health and wellbeing through the use of a digital health coach. 

The project, which engaged 58 participants over six months in 2023, combined the expertise of academic researchers at RCSI and an Irish digital health SME, with the resources and community connections of a local government-based health initiative.  

It began with a needs assessment which aimed to understand the health and wellbeing needs of the citizens of Athy, looking specifically at sleep, exercise, eating well, stress management, mental health, relationships, and substance control. Survey results showed that the majority of participants wanted support with sleep (54%), exercise and movement (60%), healthy eating (59%), managing stress (59%) and mental health (57%). 

Interviews found similar results with participants saying they needed support with motivation and accountability for healthy eating and exercise: “I just got out of the habit and lost motivation and trying to get back into it.”  

The assessment also explored views on the use of digital technology and health coaching, and participants showed strong interest in using digital tools for health support, indicating societal readiness for this type of intervention.  

One interviewee described how connecting a wearable device to the platform would help: “Yeah I would be comfortable with that, it would be good because you can do it anywhere, you don't have to go to a certain place; so, for me, it will be easier to do and to use.”  

Coach-led platform

This needs assessment informed the next stage of the Connect5 Athy project, which saw participants being recruited and given access to a coach-led digital health platform that was designed to support them to make small changes for better health.  

The project used a positive health coaching approach; a person-centered approach that encourages self-discovery, active learning, accountability, and behaviour goals. 

They could communicate with their coach by text or by video call (by appointment). Coaches and participants were given access to evidence-based content related to the pillars of lifestyle medicine. 

Participants also had the option to connect a wearable device to the app for motivational support and personal trackability only, and the coach had access to a directory of supports available locally.  

Participants were encouraged to take part in monthly health coaching sessions with the health coach to explore their current and desired lifestyle and to make small and actionable intentions monthly to move towards their desired lifestyle. They looked at changes they could make in exercise, sleep, healthy eating, mental health, cultivating relationships, managing tobacco and/or alcohol use, and purpose and connection.  

Participants could talk about the challenges or barriers they encountered and make amendments to their plan, and the coach checked in with them weekly. 

Positive changes and better health 

There were high engagement rates with the coach: 55% of participants engaged in online health coaching sessions primarily focused on eating healthy food and exercise, with secondary attention to mental health and well-being. 

A significant change in overall health was reported among the most engaged participants, with others reporting positive changes in their wellbeing. Some said they had regained independence and self-efficacy for chronic disease management, including one participant managing a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes. Some had increased their exercise, and others created sustainable meditation and mindfulness routines. 

The second phase of the project began in April 2024, with 52 participants recruited so far. This phase will be linked with a longitudinal study of five of the participants from the first phase who will be followed on their health journey, allowing researchers to examine the lived experience of individuals as they manage their health with the support of monthly appointments with their online health coach. 

This phase will also see the project partner with two social prescribing link workers in Athy who will refer patients attending primary care services to Connect5 health coaching. 

Adoption in other communities 

The project's success highlights the importance of community engagement in digital health initiatives, demonstrating how partnerships between researchers and local stakeholders can effectively address community health needs.  

It also exemplifies the significance of societal engagement in driving positive health outcomes and fostering community-based approaches to wellness. 

The collaboration has set a precedent for the integration of health coach-led digital interventions into community health initiatives, highlighting the effectiveness of coach-led interventions in promoting sustainable lifestyle changes. This could lead to the adoption of similar programmes in other communities, allowing more and more people to be supported to make the changes that will improve their health and wellbeing.  

Connect5 Athy was funded by the Irish Research Council (IRC) enterprise partnership fund and SláinteCare Healthy Communities Kildare. The digital support platform for the project was managed by technical partner Empeal. 

RCSI is committed to achieving a better and more sustainable future through the UN Sustainable Development Goals.