BACKGROUND IMAGE: iSTOCK/GETTY IMAGES
BOSTON -- People who use wearable tracking bands and march thousands of steps a day probably don't need to see the doctor much. They take wellness seriously and are essentially doing their own preventive medicine.
There's plenty of evidence for that, experts at World Congress' mHealth + Telehealth World 2015 conference said. But determining the return on investment (ROI) of wearable health technology in strictly medical applications, as well as for simple wellness itself, is a tougher challenge.
ROI in the rapidly growing wearable space is still an inexact science, at best. Many healthcare providers feel it's there, but they just can't quantify the financial ROI precisely, say, in the same way a business could calculate the ROI horizon of a new heating system or server bank.
The real ROI for many providers, employers and end users is improved patient engagement and satisfaction -- a major goal of meaningful use and of modern health IT itself.
Health IT people say they recognize that benefit when they see it, but they can't always define it exactly.
Hard ROI is an elusive goal. Devices are expensive, especially medical-grade, FDA-approved wearables as opposed to consumer fitness bands, which also aren't cheap. That is why so many big healthcare providers still run small trials with limited numbers of patients to explore the efficacy and ROI of wearable-based healthcare programs.
Wearables' medical uses easy to see
Even so, wearable health technology, remote patient monitoring using plug-in devices and social media tools are effective at producing better medical outcomes for sick people, too -- not just making healthy people fitter, said Joseph Kvedar, M.D., vice president of connected health at Partners HealthCare System Inc., in Boston during his keynote at the conference.
Kvedar, a telehealth leader who runs his own popular connected health conference in Boston each fall, said telehealth programs at his healthcare system produced tangibly better outcomes for patients suffering from obesity, Type 2 diabetes, congestive heart failure and other chronic conditions.
"We have to get beyond this idea the patient-generated data is just for the fit and the well," Kvedar said in his keynote.
Partners' connected cardiac care program, using what Kvedar called "ubiquitous" tablets and consumer-grade sensors to deliver patient-generated data, has spun off a 50% drop in hospital readmissions among cardiac patients in the program, Kvedar said.
Telemedicine guru Kvedar sees ROI
Kvedar articulated an increasingly commonplace application of telemedicine: remote patient monitoring that couples easy-to-use, plug-in devices for patients at home, with human and automated intervention on the provider side.
While such remote monitoring approaches are becoming popular -- and seem to provide ROI in terms of reducing patient and doctor travel time, and often, ER visits -- they usually involve items, such as scales and plug-in monitoring devices, rather than full-scale wearables.
Kvedar is so convinced that ROI is achievable in telemedicine that he developed an app for it -- telemedicineroi.com -- in conjunction with the California HealthCare Foundation and the Center for Technology and Aging.
With diabetes patients, Kvedar said the ROI is a little less clear. "We're not reducing readmissions, but we are keeping people healthier," he said, noting that blood sugar levels dropped dramatically among patients in a Partners telemedicine program.
Partners also achieved startling success, Kvedar said, with a group of teenage asthma patients who previously had not responded well to an online survey designed to track treatment compliance. When Partners clinicians created a private Facebook page for the teenagers, participation mushroomed and their asthma control test lung function scores were markedly better than when the hospital simply gave them inhalers.
Wearable ROI for employers
Meanwhile, it is not as if there is no demonstrable ROI for wearable health devices on the consumer side, maintained another speaker, Lori Huss, director of wellness capabilities at giant insurer Humana Inc.
One way of looking at user-generated data from wearables is that it is information that employers and insurers can improve health, Huss argued.
Chris Steelsenior partner, PA Consulting Group
And in the future, payers are likely to encourage the use of wearables to incentivize fitness programs, though privacy advocates warn of rampant third-party use of wearable-generated data and even of corporate snooping on wellness program participants.
"The importance of wellness is at an all-time high," Huss said, noting that consumer wearable vendor Fitbit Inc.'s recent IPO went for $6.5 billion. "2015 is the year of wearables."
Huss argued that the definition of wellness device ROI for employers ought to change from a traditional view of wearable benefits, such as quality of health outcomes and lower health costs, to a more contemporary calculation that considers the devices' effect on worker productivity and company profitability.
Beyond wearable trendiness
On another panel conference, two experts from United Kingdom-based tech consulting firm PA Consulting Group said the buzz around wearables is more than a passing fad.
"Besides some of the consumer wellness hype, we believe wearables really are the next big uptick in the market," said Chris Steel, PA's senior partner.
Steel noted that wearable health technology has already proved its commercial viability in the medical market, not only in the consumer wellness sphere.
He ticked off examples, such as smart clothing from Nanowear Inc., with applications for diabetes and neurological conditions; eTect Inc.'s ingestible-medicine-tracking sensors, which send back info to clinicians from the tiny devices; and Google Glass for Parkinson's disease patients.
For now, the benefits of these and similar wearable technologies derive from patient care improvements. Tracking financial ROI isn't as easily achieved, at least yet.
Can wearable devices connect with EHR systems?
International Consumer Electronics Show honors wearable health technology
The wearables market in healthcare hinges on physician support