Many health fitness wearable devices have emerged and generated great buzz. But, Nike just announced lay-offs in its Fuel Band business, and some prominent investors are holding back. What needs to be happen before this market can take off?
My look into this space suggests three big issues:
1. Do wearable health fitness devices produce results? Some say that little behavior change occurs and most devices end up in a drawer after a couple of months.
2. Does your doctor want to receive the stream of data from your wearable device, and will s/he do anything with it? How does real time data monitoring mix into doctors’ daily work?
3. Are wearable health fitness sensors a “product” on which a business can be built, or a “feature” of general-purpose devices?
I suspect the answers to these questions are not yet discovered, so this is really a conversation at this point. In that spirit, I offer my observations:
The Nike Fuel Band. Photo credit: Peter Parkes via Wikipedia, licensed per Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.
Do wearable devices produce results?
About 10% of users get motivated by the data spontaneously. About 60% stop using their device after 6-12 months. Research done by Dr. Joseph Kvedar of the Partners Center for Connected Health indicates that the other ~30% can be engaged if the data from their wearable device becomes part of the dialogue with their healthcare provider. You can view this as a glass mostly empty, or a valuable tool for up to 40% of the population (source).
I’m an optimist here. First, “lifestyle disease” (disease caused by lifestyle choices, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes for which obesity is a big factor) is a huge public health problem, and hence a huge potential therapeutics market. An intervention that works for 40% of the population is a big deal.
Second, the data above is short term experience: 2 years at most. Much more change can occur as consumers learn to use wearable devices. Consider how mobile communication devices have changed lifestyle for billions of people, and how that impact increases from generation to generation. Many older boomers (born from 1947 to 1967) who grew up doing math with pad and pencil have totally changed habits. Subsequent generations are much more wedded to mobile digital devices: Millennials (born from 1984 to 2004) see little reason to learn paper and pencil math, they keep their lives in their mobile devices, and they dislike talking on telephones: text and photos are the medium of preference.
The behavioral change that we see now from wearable device feedback is just the beginning.
Does your doctor want to see the data stream from your wearable device?
Doctors are busy people, especially primary care providers. They have legitimate concerns about professional liability in a situation where they had access to some information and might have acted on it but did not. And, like everyone, they need to disconnect from time to time.
So it’s hard to imagine that the average primary care doctor, who has a panel of 2,500 patients, will be able to accept responsibility for monitoring real-time health information from devices worn by even 10% of patients. On the other hand, research so far indicates that, if a medical practice does make use of the data and give patients skilfull feedback, a large fraction of patients can benefit.
Medical practices need new functions and process to make use of this information. Nurses or other physician extenders could be trained to monitor and interpret data from wearables, provide feedback and encouragement to patients, and put the doctor in the loop at the right time. Perhaps an intermediary is needed who monitors the data and alerts the doctor when a critical condition exists, much as alarm companies like ADT ADT monitor home alarms and call first responders if the situation becomes critical.