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Does the Rise in Wearable Health Sensors Signify the Start of a New Era in Biometrics?

A major milestone for the wearable biosensors is likely to come when insurance companies can offer discounts based on the technology’s health data statistics.

by / June 13, 2014
The Fitbit Flex is part of a trend in health devices that hope to revolutionize how health is measured and monitored. Wikipedia

America’s preoccupation with health is apparent, as is its fascination with wearable health technology. For starters, 61 percent of all wearable devices are fitness or activity trackers, according to ABI Research. And the Pew Internet Research Project found that 46 percent of those who track their health say it's changed their overall approach to maintaining wellness. 

Though still a fresh mint, the string of wearable health devices now on the market have gained notice among industry watchers, employers offering health programs and top hardware providers.

Companies such as Fitbit, Jawbone, Nike, Garmin and others have released the bracelets to track activities such as walking, sleeping, calorie intake, calories burned, and other metrics. The products can vibrate to wake users, tally walking pace and distance, and in the case of Polar’s Loop bracelet, can be synced to monitor heart rate.

Most recently, these wearable devices achieved a major endorsement at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference, where the tech giant announced its new Health app for iOS 8, the iPhone’s mobile operating system upgrade. The app is designed to aggregate health data from the bracelets and other devices into a single dashboard: fitness activities, lab results, medications, nutrition, sleep and vital metrics all funnel into the dashboard’s swipeable menu.

Privacy issues still to be determined, the bracelets are associated with a larger movement -- a movement that industry analysts see, as a new era in health science where individual data is the driving force for prescriptions, medications and personal health-care management. The health devices were a common reference at the 2014 Health Datapalooza, a health-care data conference held this year in Washington, D.C.

At the event, billionaire venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, one of co-founders of Sun Microsystems — that was later merged into Oracle — said his own analysis forecast such health monitoring devices and other health apps as a next step in medicine. Doctors, he argued, could be better assisted by the additional biometrics. And beyond doctors, it was not unreasonable to foresee data systems and algorithms interpreting health data to prescribe medicines and therapies.

“[In the future] you might take software apps instead of prescriptions,” Khosla conjectured.

According to a report from investor Rock Health, in 2013 companies in the health monitoring industry raised more than $229 million in venture capital — an amount representing sizable growth compared to the $20 million of investment in 2011 and $58 million in 2012. Rock noted a variety of sales estimates from research firms for the “biosensing wearables,” estimates starting at $5.8 billion and touching as much as $30.2 billion through 2018.

Though the technology is trending, the report dually noted that it is far from mature. Additional functionality and user engagement features are needed to keep consumers from losing interest. According to a survey by tech consulting firm Endeavour Partners, after six months, about one-third of people stopped using the wearable. After a year, the number diminished to nearly half.

But while the survey may reflect the present, it doesn’t define the future.

Developments are in motion to systematically integrate wearable biometrics into health care. Chainey Brown, a spokesperson for Fitbit, said that the company is eagerly engaged in expansion efforts and product development. The Fitbit products are already used in human resource programs by 30 Fortune 500 companies, Autodesk and British Petroleum among these, and the company has thousands of company partnerships that represent “tens of thousands of employees.”

Brown said efforts have been done to integrate the technology with leading insurer health platforms such as WellPoint and United Health.

Adoption of employers and health programs aside, a major milestone for the wearable biosensors is likely to come when insurance companies can offer discounts based on the technology’s health data statistics. In a statement to NPR, Fitbit's chief revenue officer Woody Scal observed the link as a vital component for growth.

"If we could make a direct connection to a reduction in medical care costs, then I think the floodgates would be open," Scal said.

Currently no research exists that's compelling enough to sell insurers on potential savings, though Brown referenced a 2013 study from the Mayo Clinic that tested whether a device, similar to Fitbit, could measure mobility in the recovery period after heart surgery. Brown said the study concluded that the device was easy and practical to use. There was also a positive effect to the recovery process that included length of stay and dismissal disposition in older patients.

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Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.

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