STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Millions of Americans use wearable devices to track how much they move, how much they eat, how well they sleep, how their blood pressure changes. Many insurance companies offer incentives to use these high-tech trackers. But is your better health really what they're buying as they collect your data? Stephanie O'Neill reports.
KATHY KLUTE-NELSON: OK, you guys ready? Here we go.
STEPHANIE O'NEILL, BYLINE: Kathy Klute-Nelson of Costa Mesa, Calif., is heading out on a walk with her two dogs...
KLUTE-NELSON: Come on, guys.
O'NEILL: ...Kona, a boxer and Max, a small white dog of questionable pedigree who barks with eager enthusiasm.
KLUTE-NELSON: OK, everybody heel.
O'NEILL: Klute-Nelson says she rarely engaged in regular exercise, especially after a long day at work. But about three years ago, her employer, the Auto Club of Southern California, made her and her colleagues an offer she couldn't refuse - don a Fitbit, walk every day and get up to $300 off her yearly health insurance premiums.
KLUTE-NELSON: I thought, why don't I try this? Maybe it'll motivate me. And it really did.
O'NEILL: This year, an estimated 6 million workers worldwide will receive wearable fitness trackers for workplace wellness programs. Many of these voluntary programs offer employees free or discounted wearable trackers and annual financial incentives that range from about a hundred dollars to more than $2,000 depending upon the company. For Klute-Nelson, the incentive money does the trick.
KLUTE-NELSON: It really encourages you to get up and move. I mean, how many times do you get to the end of the day, then you think, gosh, I didn't really get up from my desk at all today?
O'NEILL: Encouraging workers to get fit makes financial sense, says UnitedHealthcare spokesman Will Shanley. The health insurance giant offers employer-sponsored plans that promote three walking goals with an easy-to-remember acronym.
WILL SHANLEY: It's called FIT - frequency, intensity and tenacity.
O'NEILL: Those who each day move frequently, walk with moderate intensity and log 10,000 steps can earn more than a thousand dollars a year toward health care spending. And Shanley says it's not just the already fit who are signing into the program.
SHANLEY: The participation rates for people with chronic conditions, especially people with diabetes, is actually significantly higher than for people without those conditions.
O'NEILL: But just how much fitness trackers contribute if at all to better health and to lower health care spending isn't yet known. Among the studies that cast doubt on their effectiveness is one published by the University of Pittsburgh in 2016. It found young adults who used fitness trackers lost less weight than those in a control group. Andrew Boyd teaches biomedical and health information sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
ANDREW BOYD: The clinicians are trying to figure out, what is the most effective use of this technology in order to engage patients?
O'NEILL: While Boyd urges caution before trading data for dollars, it's important to be aware of the type of information your tracker is revealing about your health, he says, and to know exactly how it'll be used. Your incentives could offer a clue.
BOYD: If they're offering you two, three times the amount of money that every other insurance company is offering you, there's something else they value in the data that they're giving you that cash for.
O'NEILL: For instance, he says, if the Affordable Care Act is ever repealed, insurers could use the fitness data that they're collecting today to deny you coverage based on a medical condition your tracker picks up. UnitedHealthcare's Shanley says his company collects only step data. The same goes for Oscar, the tech-driven health insurer that serves the individual market. Senior Vice President Sara Wajnberg says fitness tracking is done through Oscar's app, where customers are encouraged to log into other health care services that save them and the insurer money.
SARA WAJNBERG: When people start engaging in step tracking, they engage in other parts of our product more than others do, like in telemedicine.
O'NEILL: Kathy Klute-Nelson says while she sometimes does worry about what could happen to the personal data her Fitbit collects, she's grateful for the financial incentives that keep her walking at the office and at home.
WAJNBERG: It's just that nudge, you know? Get up and walk. Do something productive. And that kind of has been helpful for me.
O'NEILL: For NPR News, I'm Stephanie O'Neill.
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