Wearing a fitness tracking device could earn you cash from your health insurance company. At first, this sounds lucrative for the people who participate, and good for the companies, who want healthier insurance customers. But it’s not quite so simple.
Under the program, people who have certain health insurance coverage plans with UnitedHealthcare can elect to wear a Fitbit activity tracker and share their data with the insurance company. The data would be analyzed by Qualcomm Life, a company that processes medical data from wireless sensors for doctors, hospitals and insurance companies. Depending on how active participants are, as measured by the Fitbit, they could earn as much as US$1,500 toward health care services each year.
Interest in wearable fitness trackers is booming. More than half of people who already own one believe their devices will help them increase their life expectancy by 10 years – even though it’s impossible to actually know that because the clinical trials necessary would take at least a decade. Adding free money to the mix only makes the devices seem more attractive.
Before we celebrate this new partnership, though, it’s important to consider potential costs to the patients. We are not far from days when wearable health devices will be able to diagnose illnesses. While this is not legal now, if Obamacare were repealed, as Republicans have vowed to do, corporate partnerships like this one with UnitedHealthcare and Fitbit could pave the way for insurance companies to use fitness tracker data to deny coverage or hike up rates for consumers.
Diagnosis by device
There are positive elements to pairing wearable fitness trackers with health data.
An existing flu treatment medication works best when administered within 24 hours of onset of symptoms. But it’s difficult to catch the flu so quickly. A Fitbit could make that much easier. If the device measures a sudden decrease in the number of steps the person takes per day, plus perhaps an elevated resting heart rate, that could signal the presence of a virus.
If an insurance company has access to those data, it could send a message to the patient. If the person really was feeling poorly (rather than just having decided to watch TV all day or gotten snowed in), she could be directed to go to her doctor or an urgent care clinic. The person could see a health professional quickly, get an effective treatment and be on the mend sooner – thanks to her Fitbit data.
This ability will only increase in the future. There are more than 20 clinical trials using Fitbits underway, studying the role of activity in treating pediatric obesity and cystic fibrosis, and even how it can boost chemotherapy’s effectiveness and speed in recovery from surgery. As those studies are published in the coming years, researchers and doctors will get even better at identifying signals of specific diseases in wearable devices’ data.