The Value of Wearables in the Future of Health

Our guest blog series, where we feature industry leaders, gives readers the opportunity to read expert advice from across the analytics, wellbeing and health industries, is back this week with a post from Sean McNamara, a member of the Garmin Health team. Garmin, who works with “GPS navigation and wearable technology” across various markets like automotive and marine in addition to fitness, believes that “every day is an opportunity to innovate, and a chance to beat yesterday.” This week, Sean shares a bit about the history of wearable technology and how it’s projected to continue to have an impact for years to come. 

Wearable technology was first introduced in 1286 as a pair of eyeglasses to aid the nearsighted.  From there the Nuremberg egg, a portable timekeeping device, allowed people to keep time on the go in 16th century Europe. For centuries, humans have devised ingenious ways to augment their natural abilities, but recent technological advancements and increased public interest in tracking our health have catapulted wearables into the 21st century.  No longer limited to a single-use case, wearables now function as a platform that enables a diverse variety of applications that not only improves diminished human abilities like poor eyesight but also collects individual health data—data that offers personalized, actionable insights about our physical well-being.

Wellness and fitness were the first markets to embrace wearables as we know them today.  From activity tracking to weight loss to personalized coaching, fitness-centric applications and sensing technologies embedded in wearable devices continue to deliver new data streams that provide additional value to consumers.

One market that’s seen significant growth for wearables is health care.  The United States health care market is in a unique position as financial incentives for value-based care and the ubiquity of chronic conditions have pushed care providers to explore new methods to better engage patients in their own care.  Behavior and lifestyle choices such as poor diet, smoking, excessive alcohol intake, lack of physical activity and chronic stress are key contributors in the development and progression of preventable chronic diseases.  With chronic disease accounting for over 80 percent of United States health care costs, it’s hard to avoid the inevitable question: How do we address this growing health care crisis?

One key factor in addressing the spread of preventable chronic diseases is data.  Wearables play a crucial role in the accumulation of data that provides a more holistic picture of the interconnected endpoints that make up a person’s health and wellness.  Wearable devices provide a continuous, objective, noninvasive and, in comparison to alternative options, relatively inexpensive solution for payers and providers to gather actionable data on the populations they serve.   

As health systems in the United States shift from fee-for-service toward value-based care models, investing in inexpensive solutions that remotely monitor their populations will become increasingly important.  Remotely monitoring patients will become easier with automated data delivery mechanisms that provide access to activity, sleep, weight, heart rate, stress and beyond.  In the event that a patient’s values fall outside normal parameters specified by providers, caregivers can be alerted to reach out to members to ensure communication during or before a high acuity event.  Wearable devices can also act as great bidirectional communication tools for providers and patients for medication adherence, checkups and telehealth support.

With the rise of health care costs and premiums in the United States, insurers and employers have shifted the first-dollar cost burden onto the member. High deductible health plans and self-service health tools have placed the onus on members to take a more proactive role in their health and wellness.  In addition to changing health plans, insurers have begun to invest in wearable technology as a way to gather impartial data on their members and incentivize them to achieve specific physical activity goals in hopes of improving health, reducing claims costs and better stratifying the risk within their population.  Leveraging wearable devices that are in market today provides payers a great way to drive behavior change without sacrificing stickiness, ease of use or interest from their membership.

The utility of wearable devices in health care continues to increase as applications and use cases for the data generated expands.  If interest, innovation and investment continues to trend upward, wearable devices have a great opportunity to transform health care and continue to augment the way we stay connected.