Thurrock council used artificial intelligence technology and co-produced an interactive app with families and local professionals to support on breast and bottle feeding, immunisations, sleep, play, mental health, diet, and oral health.
The Ask Teddi project focuses on supporting the health, wellbeing, and development of families with a child aged 0–5 in Thurrock through an accessible free software application.
In collaboration with healthcare experts, users and technologists, a unique AI app was built to provide support on infant feeding, immunisations, sleep, play and socialisation, mental wellbeing, food, activity and oral health.
This project was designed in part to address historical challenges in addressing childhood obesity, such as low completion rates of child weight management programmes that were previously commissioned in Thurrock.
The project also looked to remove barriers that resulted in families missing key sessions or being unable to complete interventions. Barriers included travel or juggling competing demands.
Thurrock Council explored the needs of families with children aged 0-5 through social marketing activities and Joint Strategic Needs Assessment (JSNA) products. The team established that families in Thurrock would like more digital information around infant feeding but also other health and wellbeing areas relevant to children and families.
Responding to this need, Thurrock commissioned Solutions 4 Health (S4H, a CQC registered clinical, lifestyle, social care, and technology services company set up in 2008 to tackle health inequalities) to design an app (Ask Teddi) aimed at parents with a child aged 0–5 years old in the borough. The team used artificial intelligence technology and co-produced an interactive app with families and local professionals with support on breast and bottle feeding, immunisations, sleep, play, mental health, diet, and oral health.
The Ask Teddi App is free for Thurrock residents and provides evidence-based advice and information for parents and carers of children under five in Thurrock. Using artificial intelligence, it tailors information to individual needs, offering parents and carers a responsive toolkit of expert and evidence-based advice as well as giving them access to reliable resources and information around the clock.
The app was launched when national COVID-19 restrictions were in place and residents were instructed to limit contact with those outside of their household bubbles. This was a time where many parents felt isolated, anxious, and unsupported.
The launch of the Ask Teddi app was very timely as it could provide digital support to residents with advice and guidance at a time of national crisis. This allowed parents and families to access content at their convenience whilst balancing work and home life commitments.
To quantify the impact of this project, Swansea University and the University of Essex were commissioned as part of the project to conduct an independent evaluation of the app. They combined a survey for all users (led by Swansea University) and focus groups and interviews with health visitors, children’s centre staff and parents who had used the app (led by the University of Essex).
The evaluation observed that parents and professionals found the app to be a valuable tool which was accessible, interactive, and provided an additional layer of localised support. The app was understood to have helped increase knowledge, confidence and positive behaviours relating to infant feeding, healthy diet, oral health, and active play.
The evaluation found that a high proportion of survey respondents were from minority ethnic backgrounds, suggesting a high degree of acceptability across different ethnic groups. The evaluation specifically stated:
“…Overall half of participants were also from Black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups [BAME] in the UK, compared to approximately a fifth of residents in Thurrock being part of BAME populations. Given participants from BAME populations tend to be underrepresented in health research, this is a positive finding which suggests that the app is accessible and inclusive across demographic groups.”
How is the new approach being sustained?
Prior to the app being made available to families, Thurrock professionals in contact with children aged 0-5 and their families received training on the Ask Teddi app. This meant that the team could ensure all professionals had a working knowledge of the app and could explore it in advance of its release.
As a result of this approach, new ideas could be incorporated and early alterations could be made to the product. This enabled staff to give the most up-to-date and evidence-based advice about key areas covered within the app, such as immunisation, breastfeeding, and healthy weight.
Consequently, staff gained the awareness and confidence to talk about and promote the app with families through their involvement in the research evaluation questionnaires and focus groups.
The evaluation report is being widely shared with professionals working with children in the borough.
The next steps for the project include maintaining and updating the advice and information held within the app. Future developments are being incorporated within the Family Hub Transformation work in the borough.
Through prioritising co-development, innovation, and a rigorous assessment of population needs, Thurrock learned that they could accelerate an effective evidence-based intervention for early years to improve health, economic, and social outcomes at scale in the local area.
Effective engagement with families and professionals in true co-production took a significant amount of time which the team underestimated at the start. Factoring in changes based on the feedback the team received meant that the project timeline had to be modified. The team recognised this was essential in considering viewpoints and likely credit the success of the project to this flexible approach.
Investing in early years is more cost effective in improving outcomes compared to interventions at later ages. Through Ask Teddi, Thurrock learnt that they could deliver effective support for families with wide-ranging positive impacts, evidenced by robust evaluation. The team identified that a multi-stakeholder approach yields benefits by engaging diversity and helping promote the intervention to different communities within the locality.
Maria Payne, Strategic Lead – Public Health (Public Mental Health & Vulnerable Populations), Thurrock Council: MPayne@thurrock.gov.uk
Keshav Sankla, Director of AI & Innovations Solutions4Health email@example.com
Links to relevant documents:
- Evaluation report and visual summary
- Breastfeeding Joint Strategic Needs Assessment (JSNA)
- Whole System Obesity JSNA
- Brighter Futures Strategy