Wearable Tech: Implications for Healthcare & Insurance


Wearable tech runs the gamut from Oculus Rift and Google Glass to heart monitors and movement sensor bands. While the former are certainly eye-catching, it's the latter could end up changing our society far more.

While that might seem a bit of a stretch for a Nike+ FuelBand, this sort of hardware has the potential to change, not only our healthcare system, but also the massive insurance business around it.

Already, these technologies are collating data and even, at your behest, storing it in the cloud. Imagine how useful it could be for a doctor to check how your heart has been performing over the course of months or years, instead of just during an exam?

Extrapolate that to a person wearing several monitors all the time, logging data on every organ in his body. Not only could he get warnings when certain parts are in danger of malfunctioning, but he could get pointers on nutrition, reminders to drink another glass of water, or data to calculate an optimal sleep schedule.

But that's further down the road. In the short term, let's take the scenario of a heart monitor. What if you gave your health insurer access to that data, and after six months of no defects, and perhaps logs of regular exercise and a steady, low resting heart rate, it could drop your premium?

Tempting as that sounds, there will be some roadblocks to clear first. In the here and now, there's the issue of company-specific data. The Wellframe app doesn't team up with Fitbit to cross-reference data, nor is there a standard that has been set for medical-grade accuracy. But they'll get there; this will all be sorted out in time.

HIPAA, please
One potential problem that doesn't have a clear solution or potential for an immediate fix, though, is the inherent privacy concerns that go along with sharing personal medical data. First up, where is this data going to be stored? Will it be replicated in case of a catastrophic hardware failure? How secure is it? What if that data fell into the wrong hands? How valuable could the health data on thousands, or potentially millions, of people be?

That said, healthcare data security is supposedly better than ever. Bob Kocher, a partner at venture capital firm Venrock and former special assistant to the President for healthcare on the National Economic Council, said in an interview that doctors and hospitals used to lose paper files all the time, whereas today they know where everything is and how to protect it.

Of course, even if nothing goes wrong with your data retention, who's to say that the insurance company won't sell that data to someone else? Suddenly you're getting pill adverts marketed specifically at you, targeting your fears and your medical weak spots.

Worth the risk
These are important questions, but we should work to find satisfactory answers. While privacy concerns are heightened in our post-Snowden world, the potential for benefits from wearable healthcare technology goes beyond the individual. Looking at mass data from so many patients could show us real trends in diet, fitness, and disease, and allow us to not only develop cures and preventative measures for common ailments, but potentially use that data to help fight rarer conditions, as well.

The combination will enable us to look at healthcare in a more personal and a more global light. And if we can just figure out a way to stop one another from snooping on our dirty secrets, it's a future we might get to see.

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Jon Martindale, Technology Journalist

Jon Martindale is a technology journalist and hardware reviewer, having been covering new developments in the field for most of his professional career. In that time he's tested the latest and greatest releases from the big hardware companies of the world, as well as writing about new software releases, industry movements,and Internet activism.

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Re: Medical ethics
  • 4/1/2014 9:26:47 PM
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..

ChapAnjou writes


 All I'm really looking for is a device that zaps me everytime I think about purchasing a bacon cheeseburger, haha. 


 

I don't think I wanna be tasered for salivating about a bacon cheeseburger, but I'd find it useful to have a device that could constantly monitor my calorie input and depletion. Maybe also constantly monitor my weight. Without a connection to the Internet or cellular system, so the only person that would get the information is me.

 

Re: Medical ethics
  • 4/1/2014 3:00:13 PM
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I'm with you there. Being able to keep track of my times and health info and such would be infinitely motivating to getting those numbers improved.

Re: Medical ethics
  • 3/31/2014 8:45:57 AM
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That would probably be a nice Google Glass app but I'm afraid of how many people it might kill as they drive past a half dozen fast food restaurants on their daily commute. 

Re: Medical ethics
  • 3/31/2014 8:41:05 AM
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It's not cardio that I'm referring to.  Hobbies that cause a quickened pulse are usually frowned upon by insurance companies.

Re: Medical ethics
  • 3/30/2014 9:36:09 PM
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I'm with you SaneIT. Can you imagine what auto companies could do with a similar tactic with your car? Poor maintenance and you pay more...

Re: Medical ethics
  • 3/30/2014 10:11:14 AM
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@chapAnjou, that is sad that insurance companies still stick with such rules and guidelines. However, if your doctor really wanted to fight for you, he or she could probably have appealed to the insurance company to have them pick up the costs of the test. It would be headache and paperwork for your doc though ...

Re: Medical ethics
  • 3/28/2014 8:45:17 PM
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@SaneIT Insurance companies should actually favor people who do cardio regularly ;)

As I'm trying to envision the future, I see it more and more like GATTACA.

Re: Medical ethics
  • 3/28/2014 9:01:57 AM
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"...why they haven't become a superhuman specimen of perfect health they drop the monitoring and go right back to their comfort zone."

@SaneIT, hahahaha, well said and so true. All I'm really looking for is a device that zaps me everytime I think about purchasing a bacon cheeseburger, haha. 

Re: Medical ethics
  • 3/28/2014 8:57:44 AM
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@Broadway, that's good info, thanks! Speaking of preventative visits, my wife was going to get a preventative test done recently and was told my the insurance company that they wouldn't pay for it because she "doesn't fit the criteria".  I got a kick out of that especially since her doctor was saying the opposite thing, that it's better to be safe than sorry..

Re: Medical ethics
  • 3/28/2014 8:16:33 AM
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I think this kind of tracking is a short term fix, eventually it just becomes more noise in our already busy lives.  When someone spends an hour every day pouring over their personal data and they can't figure out why they haven't become a superhuman specimen of perfect health they drop the monitoring and go right back to their comfort zone.

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