Technology hype in the medical industry has been well distributed and plentiful for the last several years. Predictive analytics, personal health records, and other medical software have all enjoyed copious amounts of analysis, but none has garnered the attention that wearables currently enjoy.
And it's easy to see why: gathering biometric data directly from the patient and using that information to create more accurate treatment plans, deliver alerts, and generally improve population and individual health is a compelling use case.
Unfortunately, the wearables revolution remains stuck to the wrists of a particular young, affluent population, while patients who could truly benefit from wearable technology have yet to gain access to these devices.
If that access becomes viable on a broad scale though, it could invoke meaningful change.
A recent study by the Pew Foundation revealed that about 19 percent of people without chronic conditions track their health (with or without software). This is arguably the main demographic that use wearable devices or fitness trackers right now.
In contrast, 40 percent of people who have one chronic condition track their health, and 62 percent of people with two or more chronic conditions track their health.
Logically, these numbers may not be surprising — these people must monitor their health to avoid staying out of the hospital. What is surprising is the lack of penetration health wearables have made in this market. Patients with chronic diseases make up a huge portion of total healthcare expenses, and theoretically, their health tracking could be made substantially easier with the help of wearables.
Yet wearables have not reached this demographic, although there are industry stakeholders trying to change that. Here's a look the most prominent forces at work.
CMS and meaningful use
With the new proposed rules for meaningful use Stage 3, CMS has eliminated the rigid view, transmit, and download requirement for patient engagement. Now, at least 25 percent of unique patients must engage in some way with their personal health information within the provider's EHR.
This can be accomplished in a couple of ways: view, transmit, and download, or syncing the EHR with a personal health record (PHR) or health wearable device. Both of the more complex data transfer scenarios bring health wearables directly into play. Even if the data is transferred from a personal health record to an EHR, it's still possible to use the PHR as a repository for wearable data, before it travels to the provider's system.
Though the lines are not yet clearly drawn, insurers would surely like to begin using biometric data from wearable devices to make their risk profiles for patients more accurate, and more influential.
Data gathered from fitness trackers would provide a realistic picture of a patient's lifestyle, especially if more complex trackers are used to record glucose levels that indicate caloric intake.
The relationship between insurers could be critical, because wearables have a short track life in the consumer market. It turns out, most people stop using them after a few months. However, insurers can offer incentives that other stakeholders can't.
For example, UK-based Vitality Health has been encouraging patients to use wearable technology since 2006. In exchange for the data produced by these devices, Vitality offers life insurance customers points that can be spent on movie tickets and coffee, as well as reduced premiums.
Of course, the downside to insurers having this much information is that they could use the wearable data to increase premiums for patients who don't meet certain criteria (which may or may not actually indicate health risks).
Either way, this offer appeals to the people: 57 percent of respondents in a TechnologyAdvice survey said that the possibility of lower premiums would make them more likely to use a fitness tracking device.
The final group in the equation is stuck in an interesting position. Though 66 percent of physicians would prescribe an app to help patients manage chronic diseases like diabetes, it's well-documented that physicians worry about receiving too much (read: irrelevant) data from wearable health devices. Although physicians are likely excited by the possibilities of wearable devices, it will likely take some for them to decide on exactly how (or if at all) they want to incorporate such data into their diagnoses.
As it stands now, the industry is rapidly adopting new medical software to fix processes like information exchange and chronic disease management that have made for such obstinate opponents over the years. Of the proposed technology, wearables seem most likely to catch fire, in part because of their consumer appeal and obvious use cases. They certainly have the stakeholder support.