Use of digital health activity trackers linked to better medication adherence: study

Medication adherence among those with chronic conditions is an ongoing challenge. But a recent study found that patients with diabetes and hypertension who use digital health activity trackers such as Fitbit or Apple Watch are more likely to take their medications as prescribed.

Evidation Health, a health and measurement company, analyzed Humana claims and activity data from 8,500 individuals. Those who tracked activity through wearables and connected apps by Apple, Fitbit, Garmin, and Jawbone were 1.3 times more likely to adhere to their medication regime for chronic conditions, according to the study, which was published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

“It’s encouraging to see this strong relationship between activity tracking and medication adherence as the health care system seeks to improve health outcomes and lower costs,” principal investigator Jessie Juusola, Ph.D., Evidation’s senior director of health outcomes research, said in a press release about the study. “This signals that everyday behavior data from activity tracking may be a useful tool for identifying individuals who could benefit from medication adherence programs.”

The study also demonstrated a positive association between the frequency of activity tracking and medication adherence. Specifically, the researchers found that medication adherence improves as the consistency of tracker use and activity levels increase. In other words, among those who use activity trackers, those who track more often are more likely to be adherent to their medications, and those who are more active are also more likely to be adherent.

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The study leveraged medical and pharmacy claims and other health behavior data from Humana-insured individuals to examine how medication adherence differed among large populations with hypertension, diabetes and dyslipidemia, comparing those who tracked activity with those who did not.

Chronic diseases have a widespread impact on health outcomes and costs in the United States. Fitch Solutions recently reported that the U.S. economic burden of chronic diseases such as Alzheimer's, diabetes, heart disease, obesity and cancer has reached about $3.8 trillion in direct and indirect costs—or nearly one-fifth of GDP. And that figure is expected to double within the next 30 years, Fitch reports.

Prescription medication is a key component of treatment for these diseases and their underlying risk factors, but adherence to medication has historically been low for patients with chronic diseases, according to the study.

Hospitals and other healthcare providers are increasingly testing out wearables to monitor patients’ health.

Insurers like Aetna and Humana are also exploring ways to use wearables as a way to empower patients to monitor their own health. Aetna partnered with Apple to allow its members to purchase an Apple Watch and then earn it back through healthy behavior.

The study authors note that the relationship between medication adherence and health activity behavior has not been explored extensively.

RELATED: UnitedHealthcare expands digital data collection for Medicare beneficiaries

For the study, Evidation paired deidentified claims from Humana with digital health activity data from more than 8,500 individuals who used trackers. This subgroup with health behavior data available was taken from a larger dataset of 117,000 people with diabetes, 317,000 with dyslipidemia and 673,000 with hypertension. Individuals tracked step counts, sleep, weight and nutrition, with step counts being the most common.

The study findings can be leveraged to target medication adherence initiatives, according to the study authors. Health plans or provider systems could use the information as a predictive score to selectively target new members for various medication adherence programs

“This study is the first step in developing a better understanding of how to use digital health tools to understand and drive medication adherence and subsequently lower the cost of managing chronic diseases,” the study authors wrote.

A better understanding of the link between behavior and medication adherence could lead to more programs and approaches to improve adherence and lower disease burden, according to the study.