Health Plan Use Of Wearables Data Will Come With New Challenges

In recent times, health plans have taken an interest in integrating wearables into their wellness efforts.  For now, most are sticking to programs which encourage consumers to use them independently, but that could change as insurers find ways to take direct advantage of the monitoring data themselves.

Depending on how health insurers handle wearables data, however, these efforts come with challenges of their own, according to a letter appearing in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

As things stand, health plans are mostly working to make wearables devices more accessible to their beneficiaries. One typical example of current wearables programs comes from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, which announced in August that it had partnered with wearables giant Fitbit to offer discounts on its wearables. This offer comes as part of a larger wellness initiative known as Blue365.

In the future, though, health plans are almost certainly going to work to collect, aggregate, analyze and respond to trends discovered in wearables data. Eventually, some health plans may follow the lead of John Hancock, which has stopped selling traditional life insurance coverage and instead, offers only interactive policies which involve tracking fitness and health data through smartphones and wearable devices.

Before health insurers go any further in integrating wearables data into their operations, however, they’d be wise to consider some potential snags that could arise, the authors note.

For example, before health insurers decide to slap patients with less-healthy lifestyles with higher premiums or even deny them a policy entirely, they should bear in mind that it could come as a shock to their members. They’ll need to explain this approach to consumers carefully before they move ahead.

Another concern regarding the collection of wearables data is that the wearable device readings might not be especially accurate, which could cause trouble, the authors said. On the one hand, if the devices undercount steps or other healthy behaviors, consumers could lose out on incentives. On the other, if the wearable data isn’t clinically validated for accuracy, it could saddle consumers with an inaccurate diagnosis. Health insurers will need to develop strategies for addressing these data quality concerns.

Yet another issue is that given the cost of wearables, some patients with lower incomes won’t be able to afford them, which will block them from earning incentives and prevent them from realizing potential health benefits these devices offer, the letter said. When designing these programs, payers might want to offer more deeply discounted device options to make them available to this population.

In addition, it’s important to note that digital health devices might come with privacy risks, the authors warn. Given that (at least at present) data collected by wearables isn’t protected by HIPAA, health plans might share the data with third parties unanticipated by the member. Despite being legal, it could still upset consumers a great deal and could undermine the trust needed to make such personal data sharing workable.

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.