Wear This Device So the Boss Knows You’re Losing Weight

The aim is to get people more invested in taking care of themselves; consumers wear the devices and activity data is uploaded to be verified and reward them for their participation and efforts.

INN Breaking News, August 22, 2014

Adam Satariano

(Bloomberg) -- To fight rising medical costs, oil company BP Plc last year offered Cory Slagle -- a 260-pound former football lineman -- an unusual way to trim $1,200 from his annual insurancebill.

One option was to wear a fitness-tracking bracelet from Fitbit Inc. to earn points toward cheaper health insurance. With the gadget, the 51-year-old walked more than 1 million steps over several months, wirelessly logging the activity on the device. Twelve months later, Slagle has added to his new exercise regimen by trading burgers for salads and soda for water, dropping 70 pounds (31.8 kilograms) and 10 pant sizes in the process.

“I can see my toes now,” said Slagle, a middle-school administrator whose wife, Kristi, works for BP in Houston. The company’s program, he said, is “pushing me to get off the couch and make the right decisions.”

Slagle’s wife is thrilled with his thinner frame -- as is BP. His once-high blood pressure and cholesterol are now in a normal range, significantly lowering BP’s risk of covering treatments related to heart trouble or other medical problems.

Slagle’s experience is an example of how companies, facing rising health expenses, are increasingly buying or subsidizing fitness-tracking devices to encourage employees and their dependents to be more fit. The tactic may reduce corporate health-care costs by encouraging healthier lifestyles, even as companies must overcome a creepy factor and concerns from privacy advocates that employers are prying too deeply into workers’ personal lives.

Insurers Too

Apart from BP, insurers including UnitedHealth Group Inc., Humana Inc., Cigna Corp. and Highmark Inc. have also created programs to integrate wearable gadgets into their policies. The aim is to get people more invested in taking care of themselves. Consumers wear the device and the activity data is uploaded to an online system so it can be verified to give a person their reward.

“What employers want is the person to take an active role in their health,” said Dee Brock, who has incorporated wearable devices into wellness programs for Pittsburgh-based HighMark.

Privacy Flags

The adoption of wearable devices by companies and insurers is increasing as spending on corporate wellness incentives has doubled to $594 per employee since 2009, according to a study by Fidelity Investments and National Business Group on Health. Technology is creating new forms of wellness programs to measure whether employees are making improvements, similar to a trend in the car-insurance industry where drivers who put a monitoring sensor on their vehicle can earn lower rates based on how well they are driving, instead of their driving history.

Yet the moves also let employers and insurers gather more data about people’s lives, raising questions from privacy advocates. Wearable gadgets are advancing beyond tracking steps, with sensors to monitor heart rates, glucose levels, body temperature and other functions.

“The focus on preventive health at the expense of privacy is dangerous,” said Pam Dixon, founder of the World Privacy Forum in San Diego, which focuses on health privacy issues. “Right now it’s tracking steps per day, and the reach isn’t that far with these devices, but in time it will be quite sophisticated.”

When financial incentives are involved, Dixon said it forces employees’ hands and narrows the question of whether or not they should participate. The gathering of health data also opens the door for people to eventually be charged more or less based on the information, she said.

Security Requirements

These are among the ethical questions still to be addressed about the appropriateness of companies tracking the physical activity of employees, said Harry Wang, a researcher for Parks Associates who has been studying the market. With wearable devices, collecting more sensitive information is likely to bring tougher government oversight, he said.

“There will be high levels of privacy, security and compliance requirements,” Wang said. “There will be high expectations from consumers about how the data will be used.”

Companies and insurers said they protect the privacy of people using wearable gadgets, and comply with federal laws that prevent employers from seeing certain health information about employees without consent. The wearable programs are voluntary and often administered by third-party vendors like StayWell, which works with BP.

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