Fitness Monitors Threaten to Oversaturate the Health Data Market

By Cort Olsen

Some of the hottest selling wellness products on the market right now are apps and gadgets that monitor a person’s vital signs, such as Fitbit, Nike+ and a slew of different step-counting gizmos.

While these products are all the rage for independent consumers and employers who seek to promote better health among their employees, several wellness experts have expressed concern that the physical wellness data market is becoming oversaturated and the attention spent on the other aspects of wellness — such as mental, social and financial wellness — is getting lost in the pursuit of miles walked and stairs climbed.

Michael Fauscette, chief research officer at G2 Crowd, says physical wellness data has received so much attention due to the desire from individuals to be physically healthy and because physical wellness is much easier to track and manage, as opposed to the other pillars of wellness.

The easiest wellness

“We have this major proliferation of devices and yet we haven’t gotten to the point where the features and the benefits are compelling enough for everyone to want to participate,” Fauscette says. “Physical wellness is an easy place to focus because you can instrument that, it’s obvious, it has outward benefits and, in other words, it’s the easiest.”

Dave Osterndorf, partner and chief actuary for Health Exchange Resources, agrees. He says that while wellness experts discuss expanding into other avenues of wellness such as mental, social and financial, very little is being done to expand into those realms.

“Historically, it has been a challenge for people to put those total health pieces together as effectively as they can,” says Osterndorf. “An employer’s ability to tie together everything from an employee’s 401(k) and HSA balance, to their health status information and any kind of individual healthcare plan, to their underlying benefits programs and over into EAPs and workplace wellness efforts, have all been put into different pieces that are typically run by different vendors.”

Osterndorf admits that while it is “a nice idea” for employers to integrate all aspects of wellness into one program; gathering these elements from different fit-tech providers can be tricky.

Shan Fowler, a thought leader for Benefitfocus, says he has seen many tech companies attempt to enter the health data market ever since Benefitfocus began as a tech startup themselves back in 2000. He adds that many have failed due to issues such as funding difficulties and missing their target audience.

“There are several overlapping circles that influence investment in health data,” Fowler says. “It can fall into several categories, like claims data, wearable data or electronic health records.”

Distinct divide

Fowler says there is distinct divide between products and apps that are marketed toward individual consumers and products that are marketed toward employers. Fowler mentioned wearables such as Fitbit and the app MapMyRun, which was purchased by Under Armor, are focused more toward independent consumers, while programs that focus on claims data and biometric screenings are being marketed toward employers seeking to build a strong wellness program within their company.

These employers offer workers some amazing perks along the lines of tech titans like the social media giant.

“Large companies see health data as a way to continue having influence in people management, and one of the biggest proponents to seeing so many start-ups is because of the Affordable Care Act,” Fowler says. “There is a direct result where grants were being assigned by the ACA to health insurance co-ops to drive a more value-based healthcare as opposed to what we currently have: ‘fee for service.’”

After the government shutdown in 2013, one of the agreements to getting the government back up and running was the discontinuation of funding co-ops. This has left many start-ups that were being funded to eventually go under before their five-year period of investment could finish.

“On the flipside, last year, the government invested $5.8 million in the healthcare space and I think it hasn’t been entirely insulated but fairly well insulated so that we don’t suffer from problems like other countries have,” Fowler says.

Experts like Fauscette say health data still has a long way to go before all avenues of expansion have been covered. Plus, although the market may be oversaturated now, the market has yet to mature fully to allow for innovators to explore profitable options.

Reprinted from Employee Benefit News


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