Tell your boss your heart rate and sleep habits? That’s where fitness bands, Apple Watch are headed

Wear a wristband, get a discount on life insurance. But at what cost?  (John Hancock image)
Wear a wristband, get a discount on life insurance. But at what cost? (John Hancock image)

Was talking to a very smart friend recently about the latest expensive solution looking for a problem, the Apple Watch.  He convinced me that there actually is a problem, it’s just not *your* problem.  It’s every company’s problem.

The real market for the $400-$17,000 watch is the industrial market. Human intelligence.  Stop, for a moment, and imagine what a company could do with a constant stream of data about where you are, what you are doing, how you are sleeping, even what your heart rate is. Give a connected watch to all your employees, and the little pieces of big data you’ll collect are mind-boggling. You would know when employees are engaged.  Heck, you’d probably know when they are upset.   That would sure be handy in salary negotiations, wouldn’t it?

This isn’t an Apple Watch issue, of course. Plenty of other wrist-based gadgets can (almost certainly, will) do the same things.  They can gather a constant stream of data on human behavior, and use big data concepts to search for savings. I know, it sounds ridiculous, but some of these things are already happening.  Insurance is the inevitable driver of big data collection.  John Hancock recently revealed it would give life insurance discounts for consumers who don a wearable and share their vitals with the firm.  Users get “points” for walking, playing golf, etc. Hip health insurer Oscar doesn’t give discounts, but offers monthly Amazon gift cards to customers who do much the same. They even get free tracker wristbands.

It’s a very small leap for a company to hand out Apple Watches…or Android watches….or who knows what?…and require their use as a condition of employment.    They won’t even have to require it. They’ll just have to give people an extra day’s vacation, or a bonus, or….a discount on monthly health insurance co-pays.

Maybe this doesn’t bother you. Of course, it’s a good idea to create incentives for people to be healthier.  But as usual, we are rushing headlong into a brave new world with little thought to unintended consequences, and with antiquated laws that aren’t ready to handle the changes.  What will become of this data? Who owns the rights to it? How long can it be retained? To whom can it be transferred? And most important, how far is too far?  Could employees be terminated if their health is seen as a long-term risk? Could that information be used in hiring decisions? Obviously, health data collection companies have one over-arching goal in mind: Keeping down employee health care costs. Figuring out who “expensive” employees are and getting them off the books — or keeping them off the books in the first place — is too profitable a possibility to be ignored.

Seattle-based Healthnetic is one of an exploding group of health data firms saying they can predict health and productivity costs of groups.

“Not only do you end up with a stronger workforce, but you could also save money,” the firm’s website says.   A recent press release says that less than one percent of large companies’ work forces account for 41 percent of their health care costs. “On average, employers paid $113,379 in medical and pharmacy expenses for each individual high-cost member, compared to just $2,751 for everyone else,” the release says.

“The fact that employers can save more than $110,000 by preventing just one high-cost member is pretty eye-opening and shows why it’s so important for organizations to understand their population’s health and how it impacts their bottom line,” said Sean Gallivan, Chief Operating Officer of Healthentic, in the release.

Again: Early intervention programs and health programs can be a fantastic thing. If wristband gadgets help inspire people to take better care of themselves, that’s a godsend (though the data is mixed on their effectiveness).  Human resources departments around the country could indeed play a vital role in helping restore America’s vitality.

But do you trust them to do that? Or are these programs destined to become another cost-cutting measure designed to shove costs and risks back onto individuals and away from corporations?  After all, the idea of insurance is to pool risk, so individuals aren’t wiped out by calamities, and everyone gets to enjoy the freedom that a large safety net brings.  Using technology to eliminate the risk from the risk pool is an awfully profitable concept, but it’s also another tear in the fabric that gives meaning to an organized society.

It also sounds great until you find yourself on the outside of the risk pool, looking in.

Now is the time to think about these privacy and social issues, not after we’re all wearing wristbands because it seems like everybody is doing it.  We can save what could be a very powerful and compelling new technology by controlling its use from the outset, and ensuring that it benefits people, not profits.  Don’t kid yourself. That’s going to be really hard to do.

Healthnetic's "Population Health Dashboard."
Healthnetic’s “Population Health Dashboard.”

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About Bob Sullivan 1286 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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