Once considered a fad, wearable fitness gadgets are rapidly working their way into insurance plans.
On August 7th, Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) announced a partnership with Fitbit to get its 60 million members a special deal on the fitness tracking devices.
The goal is to “help consumers create and maintain healthy habits,” the insurance association said.
“This strategic partnership will bring personalized health and wellbeing to the next level, allowing members to put their health first,” explained Mark Talluto, Vice President of Strategy and Analytics at BCBS Association.
The Fitbits will be available via BCNS’ discount wellness program called Blue365. The program, Talluto added, lets customers take advantage of other deals including “fitness gear, gym memberships, healthy eating options, stress management services, hearing aids, and vision and dental products.”
As part of this partnership, Blue Cross Blue Shield customers will be able to purchase a fitbit device at a significant discount which ranges from 15% to 49% off Fitbit products including Ionic, Versa, Charge 2, and more.
The BCBS-Fitbit deal is part of a bigger trend of insurers trying to stimulate members to get moving using fitness devices.
UnitedHealthcare offers Samsung and Garmin fitness trackers for a discounted price to some group members; Oscar Health gave members their Misfit devices for free.
Aetna is also considering introducing Apple Watches to its members.
The prevalence of these offerings have raised concerns among patient advocates and privacy scholars. A recent investigation revealed that insurers might be using the personal data collected by fitness devices to predict the risks posed by a patient and adjust rates to protect themselves from losses. “I can’t say it hasn’t happened,” a research scientist told a ProPublica journalist.
If, for instance, you don’t walk enough steps in a day, start packing on pounds or you skimp on sleep, then the algorithm could predict future health problems, causing insurers to increase your deductible.
Moreover, fitness wearables have mile-long privacy policies making it difficult for patients to do their homework before giving their consent. According to an analysis, some fitness devices have privacy policies as lengthy as 22 pages.
Currently, a patient’s medical information is protected through The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA. However, this doesn’t shield information collected from wellness health trackers.
This makes security experts fear that insurers cannot protect people’s personal data from hackers in the case of a breach, which happens more often than expected.
In 2015, mammoth insurer Anthem experienced the biggest healthcare breach in history. Almost 80 million patient records were stolen, including names, Social Security numbers, and home addresses.
Since then, data breaches have become a daily occurrence.
According to the Protenus Breach Barometer, an artificial intelligence platform that analyzes every point of access to patient data inside the electronic health record (EHR), 1.13 million patient records were exposed in 110 healthcare data breaches in the first quarter of 2018. That means there was at least one data breach per day in the healthcare industry.
Plus, while medical devices are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, there’s no regulation in place that demands these devices meet a medical-grade quality standard.
The Blue Cross Blue Shield Fitbit partnership sounds great. But do fitness trackers really work?
There is little proof to back up the accuracy and health benefits of tracking devices. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people wearing a fitness tracker didn’t lose more weight than those who didn’t. “Devices that monitor and provide feedback on physical activity may not offer an advantage over standard behavioral weight loss approaches,” the study concluded.
Even so, companies are coming up with more performance tracking devices. It might only be a matter of time until these gadgets will be able to predict illnesses. In a couple of years, a high-tech version of the Fitbit’s sleep tracker, for example, could very well predict whether someone is at risk of developing sleep apnea or heart conditions.
Some hospitals like Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital, are already employing monitoring programs to treat patients with heart failure. Tracking helps lower hospital readmission rates, costs, and mortality for these patients, at least in the first few months of use, says Dr. Joseph Kvedar affiliated with Massachusetts General Hospital and an associate professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School.
Johns Hopkins cardiologists also think fitness trackers can improve health. “Fitness trackers are a great tool for heart health,” says Johns Hopkins cardiologist Seth Martin, M.D., M.H.S.
These gadgets are gaining more acceptance and there are numbers to prove it. The wearables market is expected to reach 243 million unit sales by 2022, according to industry analyst CCS Insight.
There’s no doubt that both insurers and makers of wearable devices need to gain consumers’ trust. Teaming up with security experts to develop new regulations and giving consumers protective measures, is one place to start.
It’s also up to patients to learn about data protection before choosing to wear a fitness device. Some details worth watching: what data is collected, whether the insurer will ask for a patient’s consent before sharing their information with a third party, and whether a patient’s data will be deleted when the account is deleted.
One reliable source is the AV-TEST Institute, a Germany-based research organization.
AV-TEST recently tested 12 fitness trackers to see how secure they were.
As long as the data doesn’t fall into the wrong hands, programs like the one launched by BCBS-Fitbit seem to have the potential to increase healthful behaviors.
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