Apple’s iWatch: ‘Seminal event’ for employer wellness market

Article originally appeared in Employee Benefit News Benefit professionals say Apple’s just-introduced smartwatch may spur adoption of corporate wellness programs – if certain obstacles about wearable monitoring devices can be overcome.

“We think Apple’s going to be a major player,” says Derek Newell, CEO of digital health care platform Jiff. “The iWatch is the leading indicator that wearable devices, apps and services that monitor your health are hitting the mainstream.”

Adam Kaufman, Ph.D., chief executive officer of DPS Health – a provider of online behavior change programs that improve obesity-related health outcomes – says that health care partnerships will likely help with the wearable watch/computer’s uptake. “I agree with the premise that wearables – including iWatch – will need health care partnerships to meaningfully impact employee wellness and other health promotion approaches,” says Kaufman. “In general, the ‘quantified-self’ movement has not reached those who would benefit most from health behavior change, but rather those that are already active and motivated.” Kaufman explains that the price tag attached to wearable technology may also be deterring some of the more health risk populations to start moving. “One big challenge for the growth of the wearable space in employee wellness programs is the simple cost of the devices and the evidence that only the relatively motivated will purchase them,” Kaufman says. “It is hard to justify device costs as high as the rumored $300 for iWatch when broad coaching programs won’t cost much more.” Siva Namasivayam, chief executive officer at SCIO Health Analytics, a health analytics company that works with more than 50 health care organizations, says the iWatch announcement is a “seminal event for the health and wellness market.” “First of all, Apple, being a branding and marketing juggernaut, will be able to create more traction in the consumer market than anyone that we have seen in the past,” says Namasivayam. “This will be similar to the adoption of iPhones and iPods in a short period of time. The adoption by consumers will in turn make a difference with the employer wellness and wearable market.” Wellness vendors agree. “To me it’s incredible to think that the country is thinking about personal health monitoring, improvement and management in the same way we think about music,” says Henry Albrecht, CEO of wellness vendor Limeade. Limeade’s wellness platform currently supports several wellness device brands, including Nike+, Fitbit, Withings, Garmin, Jawbone, Moves, Bodymedia, iHealth, FitBug, MapMyFitness, Misfit, Movable, RunKeeper and Strava. “We’re absolutely interested in supporting what they [Apple] do here,” says Albrecht. “They’re a major player … we’re currently investigating that and how we can support it. We would think of it the same way we support other wearable devices.” There are concerns that wearables and fitness trackers installed on smartphones – and quite possibly now smartwatches – may encroach on user privacy and private health information. U.S. Sen. Chuck E. Schumer (D-New York) said early last month that personal fitness trackers weren’t so personal. “Personal fitness bracelets and the data they collect on your health, sleep, and location, should be just that – personal,” Schumer said, while noting that this information can be sold to third parties without a user’s consent. If manufacturers of fitness devices “have the ability to sell personal health data to insurers, employers and others, users should be alerted and given the opportunity to decline.” Namasivayam notes that privacy is something that all employer groups and wellness providers should take into consideration before offering broad access to wearable devices. “First of all, the questions are going to be around privacy and liability. Will the employees think of this as a big brother looking at their activities?” says Namasivayam. “And the employers have to comply with various regulations including HIPAA and ADA.” But Newell believes workplace wellness vendors will ultimately become strategic intermediaries to Apple’s success in this field, precisely because they have experience with the regulatory intricacies of workplace wellness programs. “Apple has always been a direct-to-consumer company. B2B [business-to-business] stuff has always been very secondary in their business model,” he says. “And what employers need is very specific – they need very specific functionality and [there are] regulatory issues. Is Apple going to come out with software that solves those problems for employers? We think not.”