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Wearables: How Data & Fitness Trackers are Changing Wellness Programs 10/6/2017


By: Matthew Prescott, Advisor, Employee Benefits

Ten years have passed since Fitbit introduced its first Fitbit Tracker, a small digital device designed to clip onto your clothing to measure steps taken, distance walked, and calories burned. Since that time, fitness trackers have become infinitely more sophisticated and wildly popular, both as a motivational tool and a means of monitoring the wearer’s activity and health. Fitbit moved 2.9 million units of its wearable wireless tracking devices in the first quarter of 2017 alone, and Apple sold a whopping 3.5 million Apple Watches globally during the same period. Xiaomi, maker of the Mi Band, also shipped 3.4 million units worldwide.

Employers have been quick to embrace the fitness tracker trend, recognizing the potential of the devices to foster a healthier, more productive workforce. More than a third of all employers have integrated wearable devices into their employee wellness program, according to a recent survey, and nearly half of the 2,000 respondents are considering purchasing fitness trackers within the next year. As manufacturers develop new technologies and wearables continue to gain popularity, more employers likely will look to these high-tech devices to help their personnel take better care of their bodies.

Bountiful Benefits
Wearable fitness trackers serve a dual purpose of both monitoring physical activity and motivating the wearer to be more active. In essence, they create awareness by providing data that can help the user make smart decisions and adjust their lifestyle to achieve more positive outcomes. In the context of employer wellness programs, fitness trackers provide a useful tool to increase engagement, improve employee health, and reduce claims spending and absenteeism. When employees are in better shape, they tend to have more energy, fewer health risks, and a more positive attitude. The simplicity and popularity of wearable devices to monitor the user’s movements and key biometrics, like their heartrate and blood pressure, can promote the kinds of preventative actions that foster better health outcomes.

With dozens of devices from which to choose, most employers are focusing on app usability, price point, and connectivity with wellness vendors as the key criteria for implementing fitness trackers in the workplace, the survey reports. Having access to an employer portal to view aggregated usage and performance information, and the ability to measure specific types of data, are also high priorities for many businesses.

Of course, wearables do little to promote wellness unless employees put them to use. Creating games and challenges around fitness goals—like taking 10,000 steps a day or getting in at least 60 minutes of daily activity—can help motivate employees to think about how often they are active and how that correlates to their health. Likewise, rewarding workers who complete a wellness challenge with gift cards, premium credits, PTO days, or other incentives can boost participation while also demonstrating the company’s commitment to employees’ wellbeing.

Advantageous Insights
Survey respondents listed employee participation rates and changes in health risks as the top measures of success for employee programs using wearable devices, although more than half cited financial impact and improved employee clinical outcomes as key metrics. Since it can take at least two or three years to see a significant ROI for claims spending as a result of a wellness initiative, focusing on results related to reduced sick days, increased productivity and better performance reviews can more quickly demonstrate a program’s positive impact.

Data from wearable devices also can be fed back to the wellness program coordinator, to provide aggregated figures to the employer that can help create actionable insights for investments into future wellness initiatives. For example, Apple iOS recently introduced a new Cardiogram app for its namesake watch that can predict a type of heart arrhythmia with extreme accuracy. This information can inspire wearers to take preventative action and help employers design programs that focus on heart health, potentially preventing future claims and, more importantly, saving lives. Many larger employers currently are exploring ways to integrate data from wearable devices with medical claims and biometrics to better pinpoint how they can improve employee health and contain costs.

Similarly, medical practitioners are now leveraging data from wearables to monitor patient activity and help modify their behavior to reduce the risk of chronic disease and improve their overall health. Rather than relying on anecdotal information from patients, whose subjective assessment of their own activity levels often is less than reliable, doctors can measure their vital signs and calorie burn in real time through remote reporting tools. In light of such advancements, IMS Research reports that the market for wearable medical devices could make up at least half of all wearable technology sales for the past year.

Future Promise
The extent to which wearables will continue to inform employee wellness is yet to be determined, as organizations explore ways to implement the fitness devices into new and existing programs. Although businesses can use aggregated data to develop strategies for improving employee health and reducing claims costs, they also must navigate the privacy landscape and put to rest concerns about safeguarding employees’ personal health information. Ensuring sufficient protections are in place to keep health data from being misused is paramount, and may slow the implementation process. Even so, fitness trackers offer a host of benefits both for workers and their employers. The mounting enthusiasm around wearable technologies undoubtedly will continue to drive their adoption in the workplace as fundamental part of employee wellness programs.