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August 1, 2019

Wearable health care technology: Fashion fad or the future?

Digital technology may be the best way to preserve health and reduce costs

Natalie Watkins

Benjamin Franklin once stated, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This is especially true in health care, and wearable health care technology is already changing medicine from reactive treatment of an illness to a preventive model. 

Markets and Markets Research predicts the wearable health care devices market will reach $14 billion by 2022, compared to $6 billion in 2017. This rapid growth is attributed to the technological advances in medical equipment and the ubiquity of smartphones and the creation of mobile healthcare apps. Another reason is that people are becoming more aware of their health and are adopting wearables such as Fitbits and Apple Watches in their everyday lives.

Employers and insurers have already embraced wearable fitness trackers and other health-related devices as a way to help employees be more health-conscious and less reliant on expensive medical procedures and tests. Some corporate wellness programs have even offered discounts on these devices and some reward employees who meet certain tracked fitness goals with lower premiums.

But today, wearable tech has broadened to include monitoring major disease symptoms, potentially dispersing correct drug dosages, and more. The big question is not will there be technology that can or at least claim to provide vital health care information, but does it actually do anything for the patient, the health care system, and your health care costs?

Is Wearable Technology Working? 

Is wearable health technology fulfilling its promise or is it simply cool-looking and fun-to-use? Unfortunately, there is currently very little empirical evidence, but there are strong indications of what wearable health care tech can help accomplish as well as its limitations. 

Rising health care costs have hastened the development of a wide range of wearable monitoring devices that can even track heart issues, body temperature, blood oxygen saturation and more. And wearable device research and development is continuously improving. All of these sensor devices are being built with the ability to monitor continuously and communicate data in real time or intermittently. While the quality and ability to deliver on a promise varies greatly from device to device, they have the potential to become an integral part of the future of health care collecting data that was traditionally captured during doctor’s office visits, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Are Incentives Necessary to Get Employees to Use the Technology?

Researchers at Duke-National University of Singapore Medical School designed a study that compared full-time employees who used activity trackers with those who did not. Each of the 800 employees enrolled in the study paid the equivalent of $7 to enroll and then were randomly assigned to one of four groups for one year:

  1. Used Fitbit Zip, a popular clip-on activity tracker (with payment of $3/week to continue in the study regardless of the number of steps taken)
  2. Fitbit plus a cash incentive ($11 for taking 50,000 to 70,000 steps each week, or $22 for more than 70,000 steps/week)
  3. Fitbit plus a payment to a charity (which was larger with increased activity)
  4. Control group that did not use an activity tracker, but received the $3/week participation payment. 

Researchers monitored more than just the number of steps taken. The study also monitored more vigorous exercise and physical activity, weight, blood pressure, fitness levels, and participants were asked about overall quality of life as well.

The group receiving the cash incentive increased their daily steps. This group was more active than the control group at six months, and 88 percent of them were still using their Fitbits (compared with about 60 percent of the Fitbit only and charity incentive groups).

However, when the incentives were taken away, only one in 10 study subjects continued to use the Fitbit. And after one year – with no incentives – activity levels fell in the groups receiving an incentive compared to when they started. 

How Can You Make Wearable Tech Work?

As technology evolves and research provides more information about what works (and what doesn’t), we’ll undoubtedly see new devices that are more customized to individual needs and medical conditions. For example, a person with diabetes might monitor physical activity to provide information about how to coordinate insulin injections with meals.

In addition, activity trackers can do more than simply track how active you’ve been. A good example comes from another recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in which activity trackers were incorporated into a competitive game, complete with signed commitments to specific activity goals, an elaborate point system, and reliance on team cooperation and rewards. 

The study found that those using game-based activity trackers were more active and achieved activity goals more often than those using activity trackers without the game. The study lasted only 12 weeks and improvements waned somewhat after it ended, so the long-term impact of a program like this is uncertain.

Wearable Technology is a Significant Part of the Future of Health Care

Wearable health care technology has already had a great impact on both doctors and patients, helping them be connected. Patients are empowered to take control of their health conditions 24 hours a day without leaving home or getting distracted from work, and get real-time feedback from doctors. This allows them to avoid unnecessary hospitalizations or frequent visits to the doctor’s office, and reduces stress and expenses.

Industry experts anticipate a strong adoption of wearable technology in medicine in the near future, as it undoubtedly brings positive changes with it. Wearables can help prevent diseases or monitor them, provide real-time feedback and help with rehabilitation, remind patients to take drugs and assist in adhering to a care plan. 

With patients continuing to pay more for their own health care, they will continue to demand a quality, consumer-centric care experience. With technology being a key tool in the retail space, patients are growing accustomed to those services and demanding them in the health care space.

To learn more about wearable technology, how it can work for your company, and what issues arise from its use, contact your Marsh & McLennan Agency representative.