Digitalization of Health Care Expands to Wearable Devices

As heart monitors, smartwatches and other electronic systems become more popular, employers may wonder whether they should offer these products to employees.

As the United States enters its post-pandemic recovery, some companies are reshaping their health care benefits to better reflect their employees’ needs.  

Meanwhile, wearable devices such as Fitbits and smartwatches have grown in popularity since the late 2000s, allowing consumers to assess and collect data on their exercise, habits and personal health. With more workers valuing remote work options and telemedicine benefits, and as smart devices begin to evolve to now, for example, send health information to a physician, experts are noticing an uptick in consumer demand for these products.

“Consumers like these [products] because there are so many levels of interaction, and you get results,” explains Steve Blumenfield, head of strategy and innovation for heath and benefits at Willis Towers Watson. “One of the things we see is that these are often products participants have requested of the benefits department. We have vendors who will show us notes that are written from our clients, who will thank them for this solution.”

These devices aren’t limited to smartwatches or mobile devices, either. Wearable electrocardiogram (ECG) monitors, such as Vivalink, are designed for use in clinics and for remote patient monitoring (RPM) situations, for example. These devices record data on heart rates and respiratory rates and transmit information to a patient’s physician.

“You can monitor your patients while at home, care homes, etc. so they don’t have to go to the hospital until needed,” notes Zehrid Osmani, portfolio manager at investment manager Martin Currie, on the subject of wearable, wireless telehealth devices.

Osmani says interest in telemedicine and telehealth devices has risen during the pandemic, as consumers were asked to shelter in place and avoid outside environments, especially hospitals and physician’s offices.

“There is a clear need to upgrade health care infrastructure,” Osmani says. “It has become a focal point for corporations during the pandemic.”

However, Blumenfield says he has seen only a few companies incorporate such devices, and, most times, consumers purchase their own products if they want to use them.

“We don’t see those very often in employer-sponsored health care these days, but consumers are buying them,” he says. Instead, more employers are inquiring about digital health solutions that increase care for specific conditions, such as diabetes or mental health conditions, and even chronic condition management.

Some experts say it could be cost-effective for plan sponsors to consider smart devices in the long run, as consistent monitoring of diseases or conditions can improve health and reduce a need for medication. However, Blumenfield warns employers to avoid betting on economic advantages. He says Willis Towers Watson works with clients to assess solutions that can help participants while creating a return on investment (ROI). Yet, “not every solution will save money,” he adds. “There are promises everywhere that everyone will save money, and that’s not the case.”

Blumenfield recommends employers evaluate their employee population versus its needs. The more participants who demand a product, the more likely a plan sponsor will receive an ROI.

“If you’re chasing a problem that only fits a small number of your population, and it’s an OK solution with low utilization, you’re not going to get a return,” he says. “So it’s all about being smart with where you want to go and then picking solutions wisely.”