Will wearable devices make us healthier?

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Will wearable devices make us healthier?

Post by Ibn Ibrahim » Thu Jan 03, 2019 8:38 am

APPLE, THE giant electronics firm, activated an intriguing new feature on its watch last month. The watch will perform a mobile electrocardiogram (ECG) and thus become the first mass-consumer medical device. It is part of an effort by Apple to make its watch “a guardian of health”. The ECG—which is only available in America at the moment—notifies users of a condition called atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat that can lead to conditions such as stroke or heart failure. The watch already tells users if they have a fast or slow heartbeat, and will call emergency services if they fall and fail to get up.

Health- and life-insurance companies seem to think wearable devices can actually make users healthier. They are increasingly underwriting the cost of a range of wearables, including devices from Fitbit, Garmin and Polar. Aetna and UnitedHealthcare, two big American health insurers, recently created a plan that subsidised the cost of Apple’s pricey watch. Customers of other insurers willing to upload their movement data can obtain a discount on health or life insurance. The more active they are, the greater the financial reward. Yang Zheng, the boss of Ping An Health Insurance in Shanghai, says that 1.5m customers are already uploading activity data every day. But are these efforts any more than a gimmick? Wearables have long been a bit of a joke, with some complaining that their “time to drawer”—the time it takes for people to lose interest and abandon them—can be measured in months.

Another insurance firm, the Vitality Group, set out to answer this question in 2015 when it started offering customers Apple Watches. The results of its study of 400,000 people were published recently, and are anything but gimmicky. Customers using the watch, along with incentives such as free coffee and cinema tickets, increased physical activity by 34% over two years. Overweight customers showed vastly larger gains. This represents a long-term shift in behaviour and is a big deal for insurers and governments struggling with the rise in chronic diseases such as diabetes and lung disease that is driven partly by a lack of physical activity. The key to success, it appears, is to give the watch away free, but to make users pay larger premiums if they fail to meet activity goals.

These findings could indicate a way to expand the watches’ customer base. Just as mobile networks have underwritten the cost of smartphones, insurers, employers and even governments might be willing to underwrite smart watches. There are rumours that Apple is trying to develop a glucose-monitoring function, and features could be developed that offer an early warning of the onset of Parkinson’s or monitor recovery from a disease or operation. Analysts have speculated whether the firm will tackle blood pressure, body fat, body temperature or blood oxygenation, and whether Airpods (Apple’s wireless headphones) might be adapted to include sensors. Of course, if Apple gets things wrong, healthy people could end up approaching doctors, paying them even, with concerns over harmless problems. But technology insiders say Apple is being careful and will only alert users of an issue after a number of worrying readings have been noted. If the technologies around wearable devices continue to improve, then at some point in the future users may even find the doctor ringing them for information—and not the other way round.

The Economist

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