by John Thomas & Meghan Cappel
What is it about the wearables trend that excites a number of groups including techies, fitness enthusiasts, etc.? And what will it take to keep them excited?
My colleague Meghan and I took a deeper look at this still-emerging area to explore not just what we know today, but what it is hinting at for tomorrow. This two-part series explores some of the most interesting uses of wearables, what the medical community thinks about wearables for patient care, and what promise it may hold for our field of marketing research.
The Wearables Market
By definition, “wearable technology” is a category of technology devices that can be worn by a person with the purpose of tracking health and fitness information and activities. Other wearable technology gadgets include devices that have small motion sensors that take photos and can sync with your mobile devices, but for now, we’ll focus on the health and fitness aspect.
The market for wearables is still exploding – Researchers at IDTechEx predict sales of wearable technologies will more than triple to $70 billion in 2025, with most of that growth coming from the healthcare sector. (7) However, other data suggest that while wearable tech shipments continue to rise, the pace of that growth is diminishing. For example, growth stood at 60% in 2015 while growth was just 18% in 2016. Smartwatches, fitness trackers, and wearable cameras speak to a core audience of technophiles and active participants in various fitness or athletic activities. In the absence of a seismic shift in product functionality, some feel that it is unlikely that any one fitness tech product will ever be owned by a majority of US adults. (3)
While many wearables were intentionally designed to motivate users to get in shape, their built-in heart rate monitors have the potential to alert users to possible health issues.
I’ve always been fascinated by devices, especially those that are medically related. In October 2015, my wife bought me a fitness tracker for my birthday. Not the most romantic gift but hey, I once bought her a vacuum cleaner for Christmas, so what do I know? As I started to wear the device and track various activities, I noticed that it seemed to indicate that I was “restless” many times a night (about 20-30 times). I mentioned this to my colleagues and nobody else’s device was recording anything close to these numbers. Unlike steps, more is NOT better when it comes to restless sleep, so naturally I became concerned – enough so that I made an appointment with a sleep doctor. This led to a diagnosis of severe sleep apnea. I now use a CPAP machine every night and sleep much better. This experience only furthered my interest and exploration in wearables.
Wearables get Social
It is clear that these devices get people talking – to each other, to their doctors, and on social media. To examine the social media conversation around wearables, Meghan Cappel, a member of Burke’s Decision Sciences team, tracked and analyzed posts on two popular platforms between October and December 2016. During this timeframe, the topic of wearables – specifically related to healthcare – was mentioned in over 71,000 posts on Facebook and Twitter. One of the most popular topics within wearables? Health and fitness trackers. (10)
From turning a sedentary lifestyle into a more active one to using heart rate technology to track potential cardiac issues, many fitness tracker users utilize social media to share their stories in support of their wearable technology. On a recent YouTube video, Penn Jillette, of the famous Penn & Teller entertainment duo, discussed his 100-pound weight loss journey that he attributed to the Withings scale and blood pressure cuff (11). The data generated from Withings products are sent directly to the user’s physician so changes to prescription medications and exercise routines can be made daily.
A fitness tracker user who was “on the fast track to an early grave” took to Facebook to share his transformation. He detailed his journey from an overweight individual with “horrible blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar numbers” to a marathon runner. (2)
Another fascinating story was shared by a Facebook user who, by using a fitness tracker app, noticed an irregular pattern in her heartbeat. She claims, “I was in Atrial Fib… had cardio conversion… and lived to tell the story… the [fitness tracker] saved my life.” (1) Other wearable device users are leveraging the technology to track their anxiety attacks by monitoring their heart rate before, during, and after an attack.
The Medical Community is Skeptical
Admittedly, the medical community jury is still out with respect to the wearable technology described here. Physicians are primarily concerned about reliability, accuracy, and data security. While not completely closed off to the idea of a potential role wearable devices can play in patient care, their clinical training makes many physicians skeptical at best about the true introduction of such devices into the patient care landscape. The reality is that very little robust, meaningful clinical research has been conducted to date on the reliability and validity of wearables. In fact, one recent study showed that patients who wore a wearable device lost LESS weight than those who did not wear a tracking device (4). Another recent study that tested the reliability of the heart rate function of two commonly available wearable devices found marked differences in their ability to accurately measure heart rate over time when activity levels were adjusted (5).
However, not everyone in the medical community is “anti-wearable.” Some feel that while improvements to ensure validity and reliability are needed, there are benefits that can be realized from more continuous tracking than from cross-sectional tracking (i.e. measurements taken when the person is in the office for an exam). Take Parkinson’s Disease for example. Imagine the benefits of measuring gait over time while the patient is at home, out shopping, or socializing; this longitudinal measurement could provide valuable insight over and above measurements taken at periodic appointments in a physician’s office.
Additionally, some in the medical community argue that as more patients and clinicians become familiar with fitness trackers, these devices could play a larger role in healthcare. For example, some electronic health record systems allow you to upload wearable data directly into your medical record. Several health insurance plans even offer incentives to members for achieving activity goals (6).
It’s About Engagement that Motivates Behavior Change
In a recent Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) article reviewing the efficacy of wearable technology, the authors argued that “…although wearable devices have the potential to facilitate health behavior change, this change might not be driven by these devices alone. Instead, the successful use and potential health benefits related to these devices depend more on the design of the engagement strategies than on the features of their technology. Ultimately, it is the engagement strategies – the combinations of individual encouragement, social competition and collaboration, and effective feedback loops – that connect with human behavior.” (8)
With more research and testing, the potential exists to bring wearables to the forefront of diagnosing and monitoring patient health. However, designers and manufacturers of wearables and their associated phone applications need to create high-engagement technology. Within the first six months of owning a wearable, many are “giving up” their device. (9) Creating engaging apps with user-friendly designs is crucial for the industry because wearables and their associated apps create personalized experiences for users, and that personalization can contribute to engagement and continued use. As this technology is more widely adopted in the medical community, patients will have direct access to personal analytics that can contribute to their health, facilitate preventive care, and aid in management of ongoing illness. Because of the many potential health benefits, it is critical for the industry to create technology that motivates users to interact and stay engaged with the wearable.
So, do wearables have a real future in patient care? It’s still too soon to tell. However, all of this information has us wondering how we can innovatively use wearable technology to support marketing research activities.
As Senior Vice President and Managing Director of Burke’s Health & Wellness Practice, John Thomas leads a team of dedicated Healthcare researchers and consultants with specific expertise in pharmaceuticals, medical devices and diagnostics, health insurance, distribution and health information technology.
As an Associate Analyst on the Decision Science team at Burke, Inc., Meghan Cappel helps clients of various business sectors uncover data-driven consumer insights.
- “Facebook.” Atrial Fibrillation – American Heart Association | Facebook. N.p., 28 Oct. 2016. Web. 04 Feb. 2017.
- “Facebook.” Thank You, Fitbit! | Facebook. N.p., 11 Oct. 2016. Web. 4 Feb. 2017.
- Hulkower, Billy. “Wearable Technology Executive Summary US, December 2016.” Mintel. N.p., Dec. 2016. Web. 2 Feb. 2017.
- Jakicic, John M., PhD. “Monitoring and Feedback for Long-term Weight Loss.” JAMA. American Medical Association, 20 Sept. 2016. Web. 2 Feb. 2017.
- Jo, Edward, Kiana Lewis, Dean Directo, Michael J. Kim, and Brett A. Dolezal. “Validation of Biofeedback Wearables for Photoplethysmographic Heart Rate Tracking.” Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. N.p., 8 May 2016. Web. 2 Feb. 2017.
- Kaiser, Daniel W., MD, Robert A. Harrington, MD, and Mintu P. Turakhia, MD, MAS. “Wearable Fitness Trackers and Heart Disease.” JAMA Cardiology. American Medical Association, 01 May 2016. Web. 2 Feb. 2017.
- Kutscher, Beth. “BioStamp Wearable Technology Offers More Flexibility, Multiple Body Sites for Wear.” Modern Healthcare. N.p., 11 Jan. 2016. Web. 2 Feb. 2017.
- Patel, MD, MBA, MS, Mitesh S. “Wearable Devices and Health Behavior Change.” JAMA. American Medical Association, 03 Feb. 2015. Web. 2 Feb. 2017.
- Rejcek, Peter. “Why Are Millions of People Ditching Their Wearable Devices?” Singularity Hub. N.p., 05 Oct. 2016. Web. 04 Feb. 2017.
- Social media data sourced using Burke’s partner social media platform from October 1, 2016 – December 1, 2016.
- “‘Withings Saved My Life’ – Penn Jillette in His Own Words.” YouTube. YouTube, 04 Jan. 2016.