They're nearly ubiquitous now—the buzzy arm accessories that track your activity and heart rate and other measures of well-being.
And last week, health insurer Aetna doubled down on the wellness promises of one of the most popular wearables—the Apple Watch—by offering it for free to its employees as part of its wellness program.
However, companies that have invested in the devices with the hope of getting people to be more active and healthy have to prove wearable devices and wellness programs meaningfully change consumer behavior, which has often worked better in theory than in practice.
“These types of technologies can really help to facilitate behavior change, but the devices themselves are not what drive behavior change,” said Dr. Mitesh Patel, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “What drives behavior change are engagement strategies.”
Aetna employees starting next year will receive an Apple Watch. Aetna also will subsidize a “significant portion” of the Apple Watch cost for some large employers and groups that contract with Aetna for health insurance services.
Aetna will pair the Apple Watch with specific apps that can help its employees and other Aetna members refill their medications or pay their bill through Apple Wallet.
The price of most Apple Watch models starts around $300. Buying the average smartwatch for all 50,000 employees would cost Aetna roughly $15 million, or about 2% of Aetna's second-quarter profit, but it's not clear if Apple gave Aetna a discount for bulk purchasing. Aetna spokesman Ethan Slavin said the company is not releasing financial terms of the agreement. Apple did not respond to interview requests.
Slavin said there are no strings attached to the Apple Watches. Aetna's wellness program is “completely voluntary,” and employees don't have to do anything to be eligible for the watch, he said. Aetna has a reimbursement component within its wellness program, but no details were provided.
Beyond the marketing ploy of Aetna's investment in the Apple Watch is the assumption that smart devices will give people incentives to improve their health. Other health insurers have bought into that idea. UnitedHealthcare is offering fitness trackers for free to some of its small and medium-size employers.
Yet there is wide skepticism that wellness programs improve health and lower costs. And many health policy experts believe if wearable devices and fitness trackers are used in wellness programs, behavioral economics should shape the incentives.
For example, Patel and his colleagues recently conducted a randomized controlled trial with people who wore wearable devices that counted steps. They found that people were more likely to be physically active if the financial incentives were “framed as a loss.” In this case, the most active participants were those who were given an upfront amount of $42 but lost $1.40 every day they did not complete their goal.
“The way you design and deliver your incentive is really, really important,” Patel said.