Health plans take steps to study use of fitness wearables, data

Some insurers are moving beyond encouraging utilization, while nagging issues remain on how data might be used.

Health plans are beginning to wrestle with how to best use wearable devices—and the data they provide—to improve patient care and lower overall costs.

For example, the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA) is partnering with Fitbit to make its activity trackers and smartwatches more readily accessible to beneficiaries through a discount and promotion, calling the initiative its Blue365 program. The offer also enables beneficiaries to bundle their Fitbit purchase with a gym membership from Tivity Health.

Blue365 now is available to the members of the 23 participating BCBS companies, as well as the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Government-wide Service Benefit Plan, according to BCBSA.

Mark Talluto, vice president of strategy and analytics at BCBSA, says the association is not necessarily tracking the purchase or the use of the Fitbits by its members. So far, BCBSA is focused on the utilization side of wearables—just getting the Fitbits out there.

He anticipates that some plans are moving beyond looking at more than mere utilization, looking at ways to use wearables to target chronic conditions, diabetes management and weight management.

“Devices like wearables are designed to really get our members more engaged in taking an active role in their health, giving them real-time information,” Talluto says. “Wearables are a good way to remind them of how well they are achieving their own goals. It’s really important in terms of behavior change.”

Talluto says Fitbit reports that the average Fitbit user takes 7,700 steps per day and is active 208 minutes per week.

“Ideally, long-term, if members stay engaged with wearable devices, health plans will see a downstream impact and improved outcomes with lower costs, as a result of them taking better care of themselves,” Talluto says. He sees the wearables as an opportunity for the health insurance industry to activate its members’ ownership of their health, with the added element of encouraging more discussions between patients and physicians.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) is focused on the growing trend of wearables. The organization’s Innovation and Technology Task Force educates regulators and provides a discussion forum on innovative technology. The group also monitors technology developments that impact the state insurance regulatory framework and keeps an eye out for where regulations might be needed.

Denise Matthews, who helps spearhead the task force and is the director of data coordination and statistical analysis at NAIC, says all insurance sectors are interested in how they can use data from wearables to help contain costs. She says part of her job entails spending a lot of time with startups and with technology companies that are coming up with new ways to use wearables to improve health outcomes.

“Data is the competitive advantage; it’s everything,” Matthews says. “When it can be used in an automated way, on the healthcare front, that is a pretty big thing.”

She warns, however, that insurance regulators are particularly sensitive to how the collection of data from wearables could lead to the “cherry picking” of beneficiaries, choosing to cover the healthiest people and while turning away others who have health conditions.

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