FitBit and other wearables: detriment or savior to health insurance costs?

Chad Earnest

Promotion of a healthier lifestyle has become a norm in recent years as evidenced by the increased awareness of saturated fats and the linking of inactivity and diabetes. Such public awareness has created a sort of craze that has hastened in a new generation of individuals who are obsessed with tracking their health — not just by weight and trips to the gym, but by constant checking of vital signs.

How is this constant measuring of health and vital signs occurring? Put simply, wearable technology. Particularly in the fitness tracking market of smartwatches such as the Pebble Time or the incredibly popular Fitbit. Either pricey piece of wearable tech will keep track of your sleep, steps and other vital health information over the course of any given day.

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Measuring one’s health through the use of wearable tech is meant to keep the typical person cognisant of the importance of increased activity by syncing up with your smartphone via bluetooth. However, this data tends to be stored in the cloud of whatever company or service that the device is associated with. Being that this data provides constant indicators of one’s current state of health over a long period of time more often than not, such data could be beneficial to an insurance company in determining what kind of rates should be charged. This has also been beneficial in the case of determining whether or not fraudulent claims are being made after an accident such as a being hit by a car.

In essence, one Canadian lawyer is dubbing fitness trackers as being like a ‘Black Box’ for the body when it comes to being compensated for such things as injuries after a car accident. This sounds alright if you’re impeccably healthy and overall honest with your insurance claims after after an accident, but what if neither of those is true exactly?  That is where collecting data on your health can lead to more sinister outcomes.

Consider what some higher-end fitness trackers such as the Microsoft Band and Apple Watch can measure about a person’s health: In the case of the Microsoft Band, there are many sophisticated sensors that can measure your heart rate, stress (galvanic skin response) and even the UV levels that the watch is exposed to on a daily basis. The Apple Watch already has a sensor available for glucose monitoring and general sugar intake, which could affect insurance premiums by a significant amount.

So with knowledge of the vast amount of quantitative data that fitness trackers can collect, one wonders about where this data could lead the insurance industry. On one hand people could voluntarily choose to “Pay As You Live” and take policy price changes as a direct reason to live healthier by hitting step goals and overall increasing activity, but what if this is consistent? What may have been incentivised as a way to see a discount on your insurance premium each month may actually cause the premium to go up based on bad choices related to eating, caffeine consumption and possibly an erratic sleep schedule. Those are just some of the irregularities that could come up, which are fairly frequent amongst college students I’m sure.

A recent article on TechRepublic’s website has highlighted the relevant data compromise and privacy issues that are starting to arise regarding wearable fitness trackers. Particularly in the realm of data being compromised either by hackers that could sell the data for ten times that of a credit card on a black market, or by the fitness tracking companies themselves. Such data isn’t thought to be inherently valuable to just the average Joe, but this information could eventually find its way into the hands of a wide assortment of insurance companies. This would be most likely either beneficial or completely detrimental, depending on how active or healthy of a person you happen to actually be.

In either case, it would be an involuntary use of your private information for the benefit of major companies. Are there any simple steps that can be taken to protect information like this? It all depends on the company that the fitness tracker is associated with, and whether or not the data is stored on the cloud. Larger corporations such as Apple or Microsoft would be able to better manage data security for the time being over a smaller company such as FitBit. Then  comes the issue of software patches, which the TechRepublic article specified as being difficult considering that a wide variety of people would be using the devices, which means varying expertise and awareness about such things.

Either way, awareness needs to be spread up front about the importance of protecting health tracker data, along with proper revisions being made to the HIPAA Waiver to account for personal health data collection. I guess that people and the law need to catch up in the meantime, as it goes with every new technology that is created and utilized.

Collegian Columnist Chad Earnest can be reached at letters@collegian.com, or on Twitter @churnest.