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The Future of Wearables Isn’t Fitness

By Phat Chiem | February 2, 2018 | Rally Health

Are you ready for Wearables 2.0?

In this not-too-distant connected future, merely counting steps with a wearable device will seem as quaint as, well, telling time with a watch.

The next generation of wearables is going way beyond lightweight consumer applications like measuring your heart rate or tracking your sleep habits. In fact, the most promising devices won’t be “fitness” trackers at all. They’ll be health-focused wearables that can gather clinical-grade patient data and offer doctor-driven diagnoses.

No longer will wearables just be a tool to boost engagement around simple fitness goals like getting more exercise. They’ll open up big opportunities for companies looking to manage chronic diseases in their workforces and drive actual cost savings. Of course, employers will need to ensure they are responsible and comply with any regulations regarding the use of data generated by wearables.

With the greater functionality, accuracy, and real-time data crunching offered by “clinical wearables,” and because employees may be interested in this information, employers should be thinking how they can incorporate these devices into their health programs.

The key to successful adoption will always come back to value  —  how much is this device really helping users be healthier? Forward-thinking organizations should be keeping an eye out for Wearable 2.0 devices that support their employees’ specific health challenges.

These innovative devices will be able to measure glucose levels without ever drawing a drop of blood, take accurate biometric readers from a device that fits in your ear, detect breast cancer through an implant worn in a bra, and end the use of antidepressants with a headband, among other potential futuristic functionalities. Futuristic form factors include body-worn patches, electronic tattoos, or sweat sensors.

If manufacturers deliver on their promised innovations, these devices could drive real declines in hospital and doctors’ visits. According to a McKinsey report using 2014 data, if 15 to 20 percent of current outpatient consultations and home health visits were to occur electronically, health care spending could potentially be cut by $25 billion to $40 billion. A 2015 study of patients with heart disease found that the inclusion of digital monitoring tools cut follow-up costs by 25 percent.

Powered by health rather than fitness solutions, the wearable device market is expected to nearly quadruple by 2022, from 118 million units in 2016 to 430 million, according to the market intelligence company Tractica.

“Health care and health-focused applications in general will be a major driver for the next phase of growth in wearables,” says Tractica research director Aditya Kaul in the company’s 2017 Wearable Device Market Forecasts report. “Wearable device companies that pivot beyond fitness and activity tracking, toward preventing and managing chronic health conditions like diabetes and heart problems will succeed in the long run.”

From the first generation of wearables, we’re already seeing evidence of savings. A 2016 analysis from Springbuk found that, after two years, employees who opted into a Fitbit corporate wellness program cost an average of $1,292 less than employees in a control group.

“The analysis suggests that connected health and fitness interventions like the wearable program in this study, can promote everyday actions that provide medical cost savings,” the report said.

In another compelling case study, the Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority also showed how a wellness program that incorporated Fitbit devices produced some outsize results: $2.3 million in health care cost savings in just one year, an average 17-point drop in glucose levels, and an average 12-point drop in LDL cholesterol levels. With bus drivers sitting for upward of eight hours a day, the program was remarkably effective at battling the effects of the so-called “RTA spread,” the typical weight gain of 50 pounds per driver.

The forthcoming wave of wearables is poised to tackle some of the most expensive chronic ailments affecting corporate workforces today. On average, workers with diabetes cost employers an additional $10,000 per year, employees who smoke cost $5,816 extra per year per employee, and every obese worker costs $506 per year.

Although reliable figures are scarce, one widely cited estimate suggests that wearable technology could reduce hospital visits by as much as 16 percent over five years, and remote monitoring technology could cut our health care costs by some $200 billion over 25 years.

Clearly, the potential benefits are enormous. But to realize many of these additional cost savings and improved health outcomes, wearables need to mature beyond lifestyle metrics like daily steps, sleep time, and calorie counts.

For starters, device makers will have to get over wearables’ widely reported engagement hurdle.

And they will need to build more interest and excitement for these new devices, which currently are not at the top of most consumers’ wish lists for health technology.

Jawbone, once worth $3 billion, shut down earlier this year and liquidated its assets. (Interestingly, co-founder and CEO Hosain Rahman is reportedly working on a new health-focused wearables concept called Jawbone Health Hub.) Intel also axed its entire smartwatch and fitness tracker division, after making a big push into the business in 2014.

But the industry is striving to make products stickier. To drive long-term engagement, wearable makers are working hard to change their form factor, making devices both functional and fashionable, and giving users actionable real-time data that leads them to change their habits instead of simply displaying biometric stats.

“When you look at the state of the wearable industry, it’s going through growing pains right now,” BSX Technologies CEO and founder Dustin Freckleton told the Daily Dot.

That’s why the most innovative companies are aiming toward “clinical wearables,” claiming that these medical-grade devices will boast much more functionality, highly accurate biometrics, and more powerful data analysis. Medical devices intended for clinical use and for improving chronic illness must gain FDA approval and meet high standards for accuracy.

In fact, the FDA just cleared the AliveCor’s Kardiaband, an EKG reader, as the first medical device accessory for the Apple Watch.

Other examples of clinical wearables:

  • According to CNBC, Apple reportedly has a “secret team” of biomedical engineers working on putting blood sugar sensors into its Apple Watch for diabetic patients.
  • The Ava bracelet is an FDA-approved device that monitors a woman’s fertility and menstrual cycle. It purports to collect up to three million data points that are linked to a rise in reproductive hormones, doubling her chance of conceiving each month.
  • Fever Scout is another FDA-cleared wearable that features a soft thermometer patch that continuously measures your body temperature and sends alerts to your smartphone in the event of a fever spike.
  • The Cognition Kit is currently testing an Apple Watch app that aims to sense whether the user is showing signs of depression. The app combines physiological data with short cognitive tests to gauge the subject’s memory, attention, and reaction speeds.
  • Fitbit itself revealed that it’s leveraging its experience with optical electronics to develop a wearable device that can detect sleep apnea.
  • Just recently, the FDA approved the first digital pill, which can track whether patients have taken their medication.
  • MIT researchers have developed a remote sleep sensing system that uses radio waves to measure your REM cycles without ever touching your body. This kind of technology is being called “invisibles” —  health-focused devices that don’t require users to wear anything.

The challenge for Wearable 2.0 makers is the same as their predecessors: how to make their devices useful, functional, and sticky. But there’s a silver lining. According to a study by Lux Research in HealthTech magazine, about half of consumers say they would be more inclined to try wearables if their doctor provided one, and another 44 percent would consider using one if the device allowed their doctors to give better health care advice.

That’s encouraging for the next generation of wearable manufacturers because the key to keeping consumers engaged is providing tangible health benefits, not just step counts.

It’s also the key component for benefit leaders as they look to incorporate wearables, both current models and future iterations, into their wellness programs. Employees will be more willing to stick with their wearables if they can clearly see the concrete benefits, either in achieving better health outcomes or getting some kind of company-sponsored reward, or both.

Another key may not even involve the hardware of next-gen wearables. Instead, as measurements from wearables become more accurate and more specific, they will begin to produce more usable and beneficial aggregated health data, encouraging more employers to adopt them.

So, program design is critical to a successful wearables wellness program. While today’s wearables might not be as accurate or functional as future clinical devices will be, it’s possible to produce health improvements (and even cost savings) if the program does a good job of keeping employees engaged. The Dayton RTA case study shows how it’s doable even with existing wearable technology.

Now imagine the ROI on wearables once they get to be as accurate as medical devices, and can do a heck of a lot more than read your pulse.

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Phat Chiem
Rally Health