Businesses turn to technology to encourage

Wearable initiatives resonate well with insurance plan sponsors that do incentive-based programs

By Meg Tully
The Daily Record Newswire
 
BALTIMORE — Baltimore advertising agency Planit was looking for a new challenge last year to promote wellness in the office.

Planit leaders turned to FitBit, a wearable device that made it easy to track walking. Each month, one employee got a $100 gift card for walking the most steps, and the company also raffled off Fitbits in order to spark more participation.

By the end of four months, about 35 percent of the staff participated, one employee lost 20 pounds, and they walked more than 23 million steps, said Matt Doud, president and co-founder of Planit.

Doud said the technology is easy to manage from a human resources perspective, and coworkers had fun interacting through the device. The company’s next wellness initiative will also use new technology, using the app MapMyRun on smartphones to challenge employees to run 10 miles a week.

“It lets us experiment and try new things, which makes it exciting for people in terms of wellness,” he said.

As wearable health devices are gaining popularity, more company leaders are thinking about incorporating them into wellness programs.

Ritu Agarwal leads a center at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business that works to understand how technology plays a role in health and wellness. As dean’s chair of information systems and the director of the Center for Health Information and Decision Systems at the school, she has seen devices go from smart pedometers to measuring stair climbing, pulse, and she expects to eventually see features like the ability to see oxygen levels in the skin.

Agarwal said more social and gaming features will allow users to share data with others and help with motivation. They are also becoming more precise and tailored to individuals, so people have different options for tracking, data displays and motivational tools based on what will work for them.

“For fitness tracking to go beyond simply a fun and cool activity and really drive behavior change across large groups of individuals, not just athletes, I think we need to start incorporating more value-adding functions beyond simply data capture and basic charting and trend analysis,” she said. “It’s what is done with the data that will make a difference.”

The center is conducting a pilot trial of a mobile diabetes tracking app for older adults that studies what type of personalization is most likely to produce desired wellness behavior, she said.

And although employers might encourage employees to use devices, she thinks the likely source for fitness tracking will actually come from doctors because of privacy concerns and patient trust. But the field still lacks quality long-term studies showing the devices make a difference in how people manage health and fitness, Agarwal said.
As the market continues to evolve, she expects more innovation and forceful marketing.

One local company is keeping an eye on the research. Medifast Inc., a leading U.S. manufacturer and provider of weight-loss products and programs headquartered in Hunt Valley, announced a partnership with FitBit last  fall and has a Dashboard app that works with different devices.

Baltimore-based Under Armour also announced in February that MyFitnessPal would become part of Under Armour Connected Fitness, forming the world’s largest digital health and fitness community with more than 120 million members.

Brian Kagen, Medifast executive vice president and chief marketing officer, said his company does not view devices as competition but an opportunity to integrate more tools.

He believes a combination of meal offerings, health coach support, weight loss centers and the device tracking will be more effective than using a device alone.
“We think that holistic program is going to make them more successful overall,” Kagen said.

Insurers and the employers that provide benefits are also taking note of devices. An article in Entrepreneur last year quoted ABI Research that 13 million wearable devices will be integrated into corporate wellness plans over the next five years.

Nick Martin, vice president of innovation, research and development for UnitedHealth Group, said that wearable initiatives resonate well with insurance plan sponsors that do incentive-based programs. But without a social aspect, he said, their use tends to drop off over time.

“When you have the connected devices, a wellness program and the clinical programs all connected together with a social aspect, there tends to be a longer impact on the user,” Martin said.

For example, UnitedHealth Group uses a digital platform called Rally that has the ability to connect several different types of wearable devices. It allows consumers to enroll in goals and challenges to earn “rally coins” that can be used for sweepstakes, discounted rates on health insurance, or dollars into a health savings account, depending on what plan sponsors select.

Also gaining traction are specialized medical devices, like wireless scales for people with congestive heart failure or blood glucose meters connected to devices that can provide trending analytics.

Marta Rosado, director of AT&T sales for the Maryland/Baltimore area, estimates about 20 to 30 percent of their customers own a fitness device, whether it is a Fitbit, Jawbone Up, Samsung Gear Fit or Pebble Watch. She expects that number to grow.

“When we started selling them, they were just something that would track your steps,” Rosado said. “Now they’re smarter, you can get your e-mail on your watch.”
Devices they sell now include features like how many calories burned, speed patterns, heart rate, sleep patterns, diet, food choices, and even laps for swimming. Rosado herself uses the Fitbit Select, and each of her direct report employees has a 10,000-steps daily goal. They have a group text every night to see who has met the goal, and the challenge is to hit it for 45 days straight. It has helped them all be more active.

“I want you to be healthy and work out and not just sit there all day,” Rosado tells her team.

 

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