Wearable Tech World Feature Article
June 12, 2015

Wearable Tech: 'Big Brother' for Health Coverage?

There are plenty of people out there who pay for health insurance personally, and the prices just seem to keep climbing, whether or not any kind of claim is actually filed. But some believe that there are ways that might change thanks to wearable technology, though others believe that in this case the cure may be worse than the disease.

The word came from Lancaster University's Emmanuel Tsekleves, who serves as a senior lecturer in design interactions. Tsekleves noted that many common wearable tech items—especially fitness trackers—are able to accurately gauge several key metrics of health, ranging from number of steps taken in a day to stress levels, blood pressure, sleep patterns, sun exposure, and a variety of other points. Tsekleves already pointed out that insurers are commonly using the body mass index (BMI) concept often derided by critics as a means to gauge health and establish premium costs, but wearable technology could create an era with a lot more information to use.

Tsekleves envisioned a future in which companies used health data from staff to both reward and penalize certain behaviors with health care premiums, and this move actually unnerved Tsekleves. More specifically, he said “What if employers and health insurance companies move in the direction that the car insurance industry has taken, where every health transgression – a boozy night out, a Christmas feast, or too many lazy days on the sofa – could increase your health premium rates? Such a scenario isn’t so far away, and this should concern us.”

It wasn't so much the idea of wearable tech as a fitness measure that concerned Tsekleves, so much as the implications of such a concept. Tsekleves pointed out that there are ways to beat such tracking systems—shaking a fitness tracker to simulate movement, offering bribes to younger, fitter family members with more time available to carry out all this exercise—and so the “loopholes” would need to be “closed.”

That's where the concerning part kicks in. How does anyone tell the difference between an insured person going for a five-mile walk and the family dog running in circles around the yard all afternoon? There's only one real way, and that's with a frightening level of personal surveillance. How long before health insurance companies—who now enjoy the kind of legal benefit car insurance companies do—insist that policyholders submit to deep and intense monitoring before a policy will be issued? Or how long will it be before policyholders forego such monitoring but only on the condition that ridiculously high premium costs are paid due to “the additional risk” the company would incur?

Of course, such a scenario is still some time off. Wearable technology in general is still in its infancy, but new developments are taking place almost daily. Those who want to keep track of these developments, meanwhile, can turn to events like the Wearable Tech Expo, set to take place July 13 – 15 at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City. While there, users will be able to see the latest developments in wearable tech and hear from a wide array of speakers on the subject, seeing how wearable tech is moving out of its infancy and into a wider reality.

While this could be a great way to help people achieve better levels of fitness, it's likely to be a policy more centered on the stick than the carrot, and the extra monitoring likely involved isn't much of a help.

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