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  • October 2020
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Emerging Trends Shaping the Future of Health and Wellness Part I: Wearables Get Smart(er)

In Brief
Part I in a series of articles about emerging trends shaping the future of health and wellness, the first installment dives deep into the latest advances in wearable technology. RGA's Matt Berkley provides an overview of opportunities the refocused attention on personal health, mental well-being, and wellness brings for insurers.

Wearable products that use smart sensors to produce more and better data points have entered the market, delivering real-time healthcare measurements. These advanced devices apply artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and behavioral-science-backed ”nudges” to help users act on resulting insights and maintain personalized wellness habits. As a result of growing interest in wellness data, tech companies are promoting the healthcare aspects of wearable devices and pioneering new engagement strategies to broaden their appeal beyond the original core base that skewed primarily to affluent and active users.

See also: Are Digital Behavior Change Products Really Responding to Consumer Needs?

A study by Accenture in early 2020 found that wearable technology use had dropped to just 18% from 33% in 2018. [1] However, the events of 2020 have accelerated adoption, reignited interest in wearables, and forced a reevaluation of digital health monitoring tools that are now, out of necessity, experiencing a coming of age. The surge of consumer interest in utilizing technology as a protective health measure has prompted tech titans such as Apple, Google, and recently Amazon, to spur the development of smarter and more adept wearables. Such devices promise to help users better understand and take control of their overall health and well-being.

A New Generation of Wearables

In 2019 Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook famously said: "If you zoom out into the future, and you look back, and you ask the question, 'What was Apple's greatest contribution to mankind?' It will be about health." [2] Apple’s move into consumer health involves an AI strategy utilizing sensors and algorithms within its devices to collect and analyze medical data, supported by a direct collaboration with Stanford Medicine. Among all the bells and whistles of the recently released Apple Watch Series 6 are a blood oxygen (Sp02) monitor, which enables the wearer to track their heart and respiratory health in real time, and an ECG sensor, which reads heart rhythms and is able to detect irregular patterns. This type of newly evolved wearable device provides proactive warnings and clinically tested decision support alerts as tools for users to take action to protect their health. [3]

Industry leader Fitbit, acquired by Google last year, is making strides to explore wearables’ utility in infectious disease surveillance and risk monitoring of individuals for future outbreaks. Fitbit has rolled out a new workplace wellness application, Ready for Work, which helps employees determine whether they have signs of COVID-19 using data points from Fitbit devices and self-reported symptoms. [4] Early findings of a COVID-19 wearable study commissioned by the brand claim that by tracking metrics such as breathing rate, heart rate variability, and resting heart rate, their wearables can pinpoint an infection early, even days before symptoms begin to appear. [5] The study is just one of several examining the efficacy of wearable technology as an early warning system for viral illness.

Though early data shows potential for fitness trackers to eventually become sickness trackers, more research and clinical validation is needed. Scripps Research Translational Institute is in the process of conducting a health study on the effectiveness of leveraging wearable-generated data to improve early detection of viral illnesses like the novel coronavirus. The DETECT (Digital Engagement & Tracking for Early Control & Treatment) study tracks anyone aged 18+ using a wearable device with a heart rate monitor (like an Apple Watch, Fitbit, Garmin, or Oura). [6]

The smart ring from Oura made big waves this year with the announcement from the NBA that the league would be outfitting its athletes with the wearables to track their health signals and help them safely resume play. More likely to be consistently worn than wrist wearables, the Oura ring can track vital signs like heart rate, respiratory rate, and sleep patterns. Importantly, the device also gauges body temperature, allowing detection of potential fevers or illnesses. The Oura feeds data into an algorithm that produces a daily health and readiness score. [7]

Another exciting entrant to the wearable market this year was the Amazon Halo band. A sleek, unobtrusive wrist wearable, the Halo band has no screen and leverages voice as the primary user interface. Health data is drawn from an accelerometer, a temperature sensor, a heart rate monitor, and several microphones. An innovative part of its suite of comprehensive health and wellness features, Halo’s Tone function analyzes energy and positivity of a user’s voice to help them understand and improve their communication, interactions, and stress levels. Additionally, the new product benefits from several major strategic partnerships. The Halo will be the featured complimentary wearable for the John Hancock Vitality wellness program. Policyholders can choose to link their Amazon Halo band to their account to earn Vitality Points for activities like exercising, eating well, and attending annual health screenings. The Halo is also directly integrated into Cerner solutions, enabling consumers to easily share real-time health information (i.e., body fat percentage, activity, and sleep data) with their physicians and directly into their electronic health record (EHR) without the need for an office visit. [8]

See also: Wellness in Insurance: A Coming of Age Story

A continual innovator in this field, Garmin, has engineered a fitness wrist wearable that tracks both fitness and stress levels. Detecting heart rate data, the Garmin Vivosport estimates VO2 max (the maximum amount of oxygen utilized during exercise), a user’s fitness age, and heart rate variability to calculate overall stress levels. Garmin’s goal is to inform users of their body’s response to potential stressors and encourage them to take action and improve their overall wellness. [9]

A Renewed Opportunity for Insurers

COVID-19 has refocused attention on personal health, mental well-being, and wellness as top priorities, perhaps more than ever. While the pandemic may not have drastically altered the development of wearables, it has certainly accelerated the demand for digital health solutions, and catapulted the value and legitimacy of these technologies.   

Insurers need to be mindful of the rapidly evolving wearables market. Partnerships in this space offer opportunities to connect with a wide set of consumers interested in taking control of their health to better protect themselves and their loved ones. Wearables have the potential to enable a shift from reactive to proactive engagement. As these popular technologies become more intelligent and interconnected with the healthcare and health records space, they may prove effective channels and vehicles of growth for insurers interested in embracing comprehensive wellness strategies and nudging policyholders towards longer and healthier lives.

See also: Wearable Technology in Life Insurance

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