Tryggvi Thorgeirsson, M.D., MPH, is co-founder and CEO of SidekickHealth will speak in Startup Iceland this year. Sidekickhealth is a digital health company that combines behavioral economics, gaming technology, artificial intelligence and personal coaching to predict, prevent and manage lifestyle-related diseases. An experienced physician and researcher with an engineering background, Thorgeirsson is a guest lecturer at Harvard and MIT on topics including data-driven health and the application of behavioral economics to lifestyle interventions. He also teaches disease prevention and health promotion at the University of Iceland.

Screen Shot 2017-05-04 at 21.25.41

Thorgeirsson holds a master’s degree in public health from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a doctor of medicine from the University of Iceland.

Why I’m Doing What I’m Doing by Dr. Tryggvi Thorgeirsson

Figuring out how things work is what drove my interests when I was younger, so I set out to study electrical and biomedical engineering in school. Ultimately, though, I realized that what I really wanted to do was work with and help people, so I moved into medicine. Being a physician is a personally rewarding experience, particularly caring for and talking with patients. But over the course of thousands of conversations, I discovered that in many cases I was putting out fires that I would have liked to prevent.

One patient stands out very clearly to me. I was on call one night and asked to evaluate a lady in her early 60s. She had high blood pressure and was already taking two medications for hypertension. And as we sat there discussing treatment options, it was obvious to me that prescribing a third drug could not be the best solution. There had to be a better way.

That realization led me to pursue a degree in disease prevention. In my studies, I met Dr. Ichiro Kawachi and became fascinated by the field of behavioral economics, which considers the factors that influence the way people behave – things like emotion, identity, environment and how they perceive information. To me, behavioral economics had significant implications for public health. With more than 80 percent of people in the U.S. and Europe dying from diseases that are strongly associated with their lifestyle choices, I wanted to figure out how we could try and flip that trend.

SidekickHealth came naturally from wanting to solve that challenge. If we understand why people choose certain behaviors, we can help them choose healthier ones. If we combine clinical and gaming expertise to make lifestyle change more engaging, we can help prevent and manage chronic disease. And if we use technology, we can bring about the type of change that’s needed at scale. We do what we do to help as many people as we can live better and longer.

Our Approach to Big Data

SidekickHealth uses big data and AI for personalized interventions. Our database includes information about millions of choices made by participants in our lifestyle change program. Each time a user chooses one of 120 different health-improving activities, such as walking, meditating or skipping soda, our platform learns from the user’s decision and background data. For example, a 65-year old woman in Boston – an introvert reporting relatively high stress levels – chooses to take a 2-mile walk at 5 p.m. despite light rain.

SidekickHealth’s artificial neural networks learn from these behaviors to make intelligent future suggestions based on user profile and surroundings. This machine learning enables us to predict and present users with the choices that are most likely to activate them – much like Netflix’s curated suggestions to increase viewer engagement.

Our big dataset yields numerous actionable insights. As a couple of examples: iPhone users are more likely to do yoga and stand at their desk, while Android users are more likely to be introverts and do bodyweight exercises. Women are more than twice as likely to go out for a walk, whereas men are more likely to create goals to skip soda or candy.