Weighing the potential of wearable fitness technology

It’s only a gadget that attaches to someone’s wrist but it could be the future of health insurance. Or, it represents a major overreach by insurers and raises serious privacy issues.

“Devices that measure physical activity, heart rate, caloric expenditure and other biometric measures, often referred to as ‘wearable fitness technology,’ hold the promise of dramatically changing the face of the health care industry,” says Stephen T. Doyle, senior director of Strategic Health Management Solutions at UPMC Health Plan. “But we have to remember that this is innovation that is not without some risks.”

Smart Business spoke with Doyle about the potential of wearable technology and what employers might like and not like about it.

What about wearable technology is attractive to insurers?

With wearable technology, there is potential for accurate, real-time data. It can provide a continuous validation of an individual’s daily health behaviors, which over time build to define his or her overall health. These devices have the capacity to collect data in several areas, including physical activity, eating and sleep patterns. They provide relevant and customized feedback to end users, showing them areas where they’re doing well and areas of opportunity for them to improve.

Most devices function like a health coach or a trainer would from a goal-setting, monitoring and feedback perspective, but their added value comes from the fact that they’re always with you.

How likely is it that wearables will become popular enough to have an impact?

According to Pricewaterhouse Coopers, an estimated 20 percent of Americans currently own a wearable device. Of these users many are young. Millennials make up more than 50 percent of the population, and 53 percent of millennials say they’re excited about the future of wearable technology. Some estimates project the sales of wearables could gross almost $6 billion by 2018.

In addition, these devices are evolving in both design and capability, increasing their relevance and use. Early fitness monitors were generally expensive and obtrusive; only athletes, the very fit and/or participants in clinical or research programming used them. Now, with the myriad design options, the integration with other technologies (smartphones, smartwatches, etc.) and the reduced price point, these devices are bound to continue to expand in popularity.

Why are wearables seen as an effective way to promote wellness?

Wearable technology is generally affordable and easy to use. These devices could track the user’s fitness activities, sleeping habits, body temperatures and heart rates to deliver real-time, relevant health information.

By leveraging the data produced from these devices, the potential is there to improve health and reduce health care costs over time by modifying daily health behaviors, while also improving preventive care. Wearable technology could advance population health management and allow an individual’s health care provider to support them in a more proactive and effective way.

Wearable technology is not a silver bullet, nor does it replace the relationship between a patient and physician. However, the data these devices produce can enable health care organizations to develop more effective and personalized approaches to care, which can improve the health of a population and reduce costs.

What issues are raised by wearable technology?

The concerns over these devices and their use in health care and health insurance are typically around privacy and confidentiality. This, as with any protected health information, needs to be kept in accordance with all applicable laws and shouldn’t be shared with an employer or other entity without appropriate consent from the user.

There’s also concern over how the information would be used. This is a natural concern that occurs with the introduction of any new technology that requires an element of personal information disclosure to function most effectively. Many mobile apps, such as banking apps or travel apps, are great examples of how initial concerns over information sharing dissipates as technology becomes more ubiquitous, personalized and relevant to the individual.

Insights Health Care is brought to you by UPMC Health Plan