Interest in wearables mounts, but user engagement and clinical evidence struggle to keep pace

The idea of using wearables to improve patient health has been appealing to physicians and healthcare innovators for several years.

Unfortunately, the clinical evidence is still catching up.

The theoretical benefits of cutting-edge devices that can continuously monitor vital signs and activity are easy to envision. Providing patients with real-time data and feedback could actively engage patients in their care and give physicians more information to control chronic conditions like diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular diseases.

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But navigating the behavioral economics associated with wearables is an ongoing challenge, several researchers told the nonprofit digital magazine Undark, citing several studies that show users generally don’t engage with fitness trackers in a meaningful way, and those that do often don’t stick with it.

“Studies that have looked at ongoing engagement with devices have found that basically people stop using devices that are given to them over time,” Kevin Volpp, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics told the magazine. “That’s one of the central challenges in efforts to improve health through technology and digital devices. While there have been enormous advances in technology, there’s still a lot of work to be done with the science of habit formation.”

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Although there have been pockets of success with companies using digital apps and tools to manage diabetes or address cardiovascular health, previous studies have shown getting useful data out of wearables can be difficult, and wearables alone aren't effective at incentivizing users to increase physical activity or lose weight.  

The question about whether wearables can actually move the needle regarding clinical outcomes is increasingly important as interest mounts, especially with reports that Aetna is in talks with Apple to make the Apple Watch available to 23 million members. Insurers have been particularly keen on integrating wearables into wellness programs and technology giants are fighting for a bigger chunk of the market as a result. On Wednesday, CNBC reported Samsung would release a new smartwatch just days before the new Apple Watch. The president of Samsung’s mobile division predicted the device’s health-related capabilities would help grow the market.

Meanwhile, researchers are still looking for ways to integrate wearables into patient care. In June, the Stanford School of Medicine awarded seed funding and 1,000 Apple Watches to five research initiatives.