Health and Data: Weighing the Future of Wearable Technology
By Amit Chitre, CEO/Founder R3Communications
“You are what you eat,” goes the timeless saying. While the line holds true regarding the impact of nutrition on personal health, a new phrase may become a more accurate predictor of your well-being: “You are what you wear.”
Wearable technology offers individuals a new way to improve their health. It also offers tremendous potential when it comes to population health. But that potential comes with concerns about patient privacy and access to data. Are the concerns warranted? Or are they outweighed by the opportunity to improve population health?
Wearable technology to correct or improve health is a concept that dates back as far as the 1200s with the invention of eyeglasses. As technology advanced, so too did the application of technology to health care. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876. That technology, combined with practical application of electricity, led to the development of hearing aids and other assistive hearing devices. Refinements in materials led to lighter, more effective prosthetics. The computer industry boom of the late 20th century ignited a corresponding spike in wearable technology for health, driving everything from better designed safety gear to wearable defibrillators for cardiac patients.
Today, wearable technology takes on new meaning because devices do more than just correct or improve health. Advances in technology allow wearables to monitor, measure, track and analyze personal biometric data. This has created both opportunity and concern. Consider Nike, which entered the wearable device market in the 1980s with a pedometer that recorded a runner’s pace and distance. Today, Nike collects biometric data on 28 million users worldwide through wearable devices. While these devices encourage physical activity on a large scale, driving healthy behaviors isn’t the only intended use for the data.
Data from fitness devices can also teach Nike about behavior patterns that help them develop and sell new shoes. Further, as the wearable devices become sophisticated, the data they collect become even more valuable for marketing purposes. Apple has a keen interest in knowing granular data on the habits of runners to better market music and other products. Consumers may contribute to the dynamic by unknowingly sharing their data with companies by uploading it to different platforms. One day soon, consumers may also start receiving ads, either through social media accounts or the wearable itself, based on their personalized data.
While mining consumers’ data to sell them more products sounds bad enough, watchdog groups worry about more nefarious uses. Though the Affordable Care Act prevents insurance companies from denying coverage to customers with pre-existing conditions, efforts to repeal and replace the ACA could change that practice. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reports pre-existing conditions could impact roughly one in two Americans. Some worry that this could create a scenario where insurers with access to data collected from wearable devices use that data to deny coverage.
Still, the potential impact of wearable devices, and the data they capture, on population health can’t be ignored. A number of manufacturers have come to market with watches, wristbands or armbands that measure your blood pressure in real time. One in three adults in the U.S. over 20 has high blood pressure — a significant risk factor for cardiovascular diseases like heart disease and stroke. Nearly one out of those six don't even know they have it. With cardiovascular disease ranking as leading cause of death in the United States and globally, identifying patients with high blood pressure so that they can reduce their risk could potentially save millions of lives.
Researchers and technology companies are racing to unlock this potential and bring it to market. There are more than 20 clinical trials underway using Fitbit activity trackers. The trials cover multiple health conditions including diabetes, cancer, cystic fibrosis and arthritis, and examines the wearable device as both an intervention method and an outcome measure. Qualcomm offered a $10 million prize to a team that could develop a wearable device that could accurately diagnose 13 health conditions. The contest challenged participants to develop a device that captures real-time health data independent of a health care worker or facility.
For some consumers, wearable devices may ultimately replace the need for some types of routine check-ups. Concerns about data accuracy seemingly diminish with each new generation of devices — so much so that an attorney involved in a civil lawsuit used Fitbit data to support his client’s personal injury claim. The data supported the client’s claim that an accident impacted her ability to work.
Accurate, instant, continuous, sharable health metrics confirm that information is, indeed, power. Wearable devices will only benefit from so many stakeholders vying for that power. The patient, the health care worker, the insurer, the consumer and the marketer all have an interest in leveraging that information to their benefit. This means what you wear may soon become a staple of the health care conversation.