The demand for so-called portable technology* such as smartwatches and fitness trackers for recording health and fitness increases with the development of new concepts and products. Some devices already play an important role in medical care, others are pure gadgets that are marketed as lifestyle products. In the UK, there are the first health insurers to reward customers for measuring their physical activity using such portable fitness trackers. For example, customers earn bonus points when they are physically active for a period of time at an age-dependent minimum heart rate.

Heart rate is measured using a device that the customer receives at discounted rates. The bonus points can be converted into premium discounts or other benefits as part of a bonus program. In Germany, a private health insurer makes a fitness tracker available to insured diabetes patients in order to motivate them to exercise more. Beyond such existing approaches, the question arises to what extent – and whether at all – the use of devices for automatic recording of physiological data will affect future pricing and product design.

What is portable technology?

Portable technology consists of micro sensors worn in clothing or consumer electronics on the body or directly on the skin. On the Internet of Things, virtually any object can be assigned an IP (Internet Protocol) identifier, making it possible to communicate with it over the Internet. A simple example of such an identifier is the URL or Internet address with which a browser can call up and display a particular website. Considerable sums are currently being invested in the development of devices that can automatically – i.e. without human-computer interaction – transmit data via networks.

A large area of application for this technology is medicine, such as health monitoring, mobile treatment and care. Sensors attached to the body or sewn into garments allow remote medical monitoring of patients over long periods of time – which can be essential for treatment and recovery. In the near future, there will be devices that can continuously monitor typical signs of diseases such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and heart failure. Ultra-thin and flexible skin patches control muscle movement, inject precisely matched doses of medication through the skin and monitor its therapeutic effect. A body patch can be used to control a sensor taken orally with medication to improve response to therapy.

Smart portable technology

Smart contact lenses measure glucose concentration in the tears of diabetics and eye pressure in glaucoma patients. Smart glasses, which add digital information to the real world, are already used in telemedicine and teleradiology today. Future developments will enable the storage of treatment data for reuse by different patients, referral to other physicians and international exchange between hospitals and specialist clinics.

Portable technology can be used to monitor breathing, heart rate and sleep, control fluid and calorie intake, record physical activity, control medication and pain therapy, and plan exercise. Many innovative products are developed by small start-up companies. However, large corporations such as Samsung, Apple, Nike, Microsoft, Philips and Google have also recognized the market potential of portable technology and are active in this area. Wireless connections and easy-to-use user interfaces make such devices user-friendly.

Applications beyond the classic fitness area

Unlike the analog procedures they are replacing, electronic fitness trackers encourage users to be more active while automatically recording physiological data. Users can enter personal goals and are virtually rewarded for achieving them. The recorded data is automatically uploaded to the Internet where it can be analyzed or shared with other users in social networks or on device manufacturers’ websites. Single-purpose devices will probably be replaced in the future by integrated solutions or replaced by smartphones networked with portable technology. The trend in smartphone use is clearly moving towards health and fitness tracking.10 Some portable technology manufacturers are benefiting from the latest smartphone processors designed specifically to measure movement and activity.11

The advantages and disadvantages are balanced

Today, in some markets, the first insurers to promote fitness and health as an integral part of insurance cover operate special bonus programs to reward policyholders for activities related to retirement planning. Some programs rely on data from portable fitness trackers – such as steps taken, calories burned, or heart rates reached. These data are so attractive because they are easier to verify than, for example, occasional visits to the gym.

The effects of a South African health insurer’s bonus program were investigated in a scientific study. It came to the conclusion that it was possible to reduce the benefit expenses for the health costs of policyholders who were actively physically active as part of the programme.

Policyholders who participated intensively in the programme had lower costs per patient, shorter hospital stays and fewer hospital admissions compared to other groups.

In addition, they were less frequently hospitalized for cardiovascular diseases, cancer, hormonal and metabolic diseases.

Leona J. Conway