More grandmas and grandpas may soon have an Apple Watch strapped to their wrist—all in an effort to keep them healthier.
Apple is in talks with at least three private Medicare Advantage plans to subsidize the cost of the Apple Watch for seniors to use to help track their health, according to a CNBC report.
If the talks come to fruition, it would be a unique pairing of technology, health plans, seniors and doctors.
People familiar with the discussions say Apple is proposing subsidizing the watch for people over the age of 65 to use as a health tracker, CNBC said. No agreements have been reached yet, but Apple officials have spoken to several of the largest insurers in the market, as well as some smaller Medicare Advantage plans, according to the report. Apple declined to comment, CNBC said.
But it makes sense for insurers. Medicare Advantage gives them flexibility to offer discounts on health devices that can help keep patients healthy. And a monitoring device could help prevent the need for doctor visits or expensive hospital stays.
"Avoiding one emergency room visit would more than pay for the device," Bob Sheehy, CEO of Bright Health, an insurance startup with a Medicare Advantage plan, and the former CEO of UnitedHealthcare, told CNBC.
Last September, Apple introduced the latest version of its watch with health features that could benefit seniors, including fall detection and an electrocardiogram to measure heart rhythm. The watch retails for a minimum of $399, putting it out of reach for many seniors.
One doctor who is excited about the possibility of a deal between Apple and insurers is Griffin Myers, M.D., chief medical officer at Oak Street Health, a growing network of primary care centers that serve many elderly Medicare patients. If the agreements are finalized, many of the network's patients would likely qualify for a subsidized Apple Watch.
“I’m an optimistic. I think it’s great news that health plans are thinking creatively about helping seniors,” Myers said in an interview with FierceHealthcare.
He sees three ways the Apple Watch might work to help patients and physicians: through monitoring, coaching and interoperability.
The watch is a sensor and could be used as a way to provide safety checks and medical reminders to seniors. It would relay feedback to the medical team on everything from a patient’s diet to whether they are taking their medications. And it would provide an opportunity to communicate with caregivers and even other digital devices, Myers says.
A deal between Apple and insurers could be the first real scaled attempt to use digital technology to change the status quo, he says.
A recent Health Affairs study found that while digital health applications have grown significantly in both number and ambition over the last several years, despite the promises these companies make, few have any real evidence of their clinical effectiveness. While companies do regularly perform studies on their apps, these studies rarely used randomized controlled trials, depended on small study populations and generally focused on healthier individuals, according to the study.
A deal between Apple and insurers could change that, since it would be the first real scaled attempt to use a digital device to monitor seniors’ health, Myers said. A deal could get Apple Watches into the hands of millions of seniors.
“We’re 100% prepared to work with our patients on a platform like this,” he said.
Since patients spend little time in an actual face-to-face office visit, all doctors have left is education and medications to help improve health, he said. For instance, doctors ask patients to eat better, exercise more and comply with their medications. The Apple Watch is a tool that could provide reminders and allow doctors to check in on progress.
Measuring interventions that work could improve health and even save lives, he said. One downside? There’s a risk for false alarms, such as the Watch indicating a patient had fallen.
The potential deal with Medicare Advantage plans wouldn’t be the first time Apple has partnered with insurers, as the company has signed deals with insurance giants Aetna, UnitedHealthcare and John Hancock Life Insurance Co., according to CNBC.
Beginning last November, UnitedHealthcare members in some employer-sponsored plans were able to receive a new Apple Watch and pay the insurer back simply by walking. UnitedHealthcare announced that it is integrating the Apple Watch into its existing wellness program called Motion that rewards members for meeting certain walking goals. Starting this month, the insurance giant is expanding its wearable offerings to include the Apple Watch Series 3.