Fitbit expands healthcare ambitions with new devices, subscription service

NEW YORK CITY—Wearables company Fitbit is deepening its reach into healthcare with a new premium subscription service for users that offers coaching and personalized insights mined from the health data it collects from 27.3 million users. 

At an event in Manhattan Tuesday, Fitbit executives also announced the company plans to roll out a one-on-one coaching service in 2020 to help consumers manage chronic conditions like diabetes, which puts it in competition with digital health players Livongo and Onduo.

During the press event to announce the San Francisco-based company's new products and services, Fitbit CEO and co-founder James Park highlighted how its fitness tracking devices can play a role in chronic condition management and help address gaps in care management. Six in 10 adults have a chronic condition, and 4 in 10 adults have two or more chronic conditions, Park said.

The cost of managing chronic diseases globally could reach $47 trillion by 2030, Park said, citing a study by the World Economic Forum.

"We want to remove the barriers to good health, which include inaccessibility and lack of engagement," he said.

RELATED: Fitbit digs into healthcare industry with acquisition of personal coaching platform Twine Health

The company is transforming its business model from one of episodic device sales and hardware to focusing on services to support consumers' long-term health, Park said. The subscription service is part of that shift to being a services-based company, he said.

Fitbit plans to leverage its consumer health data, collected over 10 years and 27.3 million users, to provide actionable insights on both an individual level and a population level.

The company has collected 228 billion hours of heart rate data from users along with 202 trillion steps,10.5 billion nights of sleep and 517 billion minutes of exercise. Women who use Fitbit also have logged 42 million periods.

"The next opportunity is taking the data and moving beyond just showing metrics to make the data actionable and personalized," Park said.

Fitbit's new premium subscription service will cost $10 a month or $80 a year out of pocket. It will also be available through the company’s one-year-old Fitbit Care business, a connected health platform for health plans, employers and health systems that combines health coaching and virtual care. 

Fitbit's Health Solutions business currently works with 100 health plans including Humana, UnitedHealthcare and Blue Cross Blue Shield as well as 1,700 employers. That business saw 42% growth in the first half of 2019 and is on track to reach $100 million in revenue this year, Amy McDonough, chief operating officer for Fitbit Health Solutions, told FierceHealthcare.

"We are excited about the momentum in our healthcare business," McDonough said. "Our healthcare solutions and our programs span not only wellness and chronic condition management but also different demographics with seniors in our Medicare Advantage populations as well as commercial populations."

Fitbit's health ambitions

The digital health and wellness market is crowded, with an estimated 14 million U.S. adults currently subscribed to a service and paying an average of $174 annually for different apps, according to the company.

Fitbit's new premium service fills a void in the market for a single app that can provide health and fitness tools, personalized guidance and coaching all in one place, company executives said.

RELATED: Where's the evidence that app will help your health? Study finds there's likely not much

The new platform leverages insights from 10-plus years of Fitbit data plus academic and medical expertise to provide personalized programs, thousands of workouts and advanced insights. Fitbit also plans to offer users a health and wellness report they can provide to their physicians.

The company also has focused on making its wearable data more useful to physicians with an open application programming interface strategy to better integrate the health data into electronic health records and other IT systems used by healthcare professionals, McDonough said.

Health researchers continue to study the effectiveness of fitness trackers and the impact on health outcomes. One recent study (PDF) published in the American Journal of Medicine found that wearable devices have "little benefit” when it comes to reducing blood pressure and cholesterol or even helping people lose significant weight.

Fitbit is looking to take its consumer behavioral change model and integrate it into healthcare, McDonough said. Fitbit executives say company data collected from users' devices show a positive impact on health and wellness.

"Our data from our consumer population shows that we do see improvements in healthcare outcomes, such as activity level, weight loss, lowering of resting heart rate and other key health metrics," McDonough said.

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

During the press event, Park said company data indicate 73% of Fitbit users with a weight loss goal achieved some weight loss. Consumers who use Fitbit's sleep monitoring feature get 10 more minutes of sleep per night 

Fitbit acquired Twine Health, a digital health coaching platform for chronic disease management, last year. Twine Health, originally spun out of MIT Media Lab, has been integrated into the Fitbit Health Solutions platform via Fitbit Care.  

A 2017 study from that organization found diabetes patients using Twine combined with standard care saw a 3.2% absolute drop in hemoglobin A1c over three months.

Fitbit's move to offer health coaching and personalized insights signals the company's push into population health, according to Michael Abrams, co-founder and managing partner at Numerof & Associates.

"Wearable devices have long been providing consumers with insight into their daily health and wellness, but haven’t quite helped them bridge the gap between information and improvement. If consumers take advantage of this subscription service, we could see scores of people from all across the country making efforts to address personal healthcare issues from the comfort of home, a significant value-add in this industry," Abrams told FierceHealthcare.

New products, services

Along with its premium subscription service, Fitbit also is rolling out a new smart scale and a new version of its smartwatch which, for the first time, works with Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant. The smartwatch, Versa 2, includes more advanced software and health and wellness features in a move to outmaneuver Apple as the tech giant moves further into healthcare with its Apple Watch.

Besides just providing users health metrics, Fitbit is using machine learning to make those data more actionable, such as providing personalized insights into how activity level connects to sleep quality and a smart wake feature that wakes up a user at the optimal point in their sleep cycle.

The smartwatch also will provide users with an estimate of the variability of oxygen levels in their bloodstream, which may indicate variations in breathing during sleep.

Solera Health, a digital marketplace for benefits and chronic disease management programs that supports more than 40 million people, also works with Fitbit. The company selected Fitbit's Aria Air as the preferred smart scale for its participants enrolled in chronic health management programs for conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.

There is ongoing interest from health plans and employers to use digital health programs and wearables to improve the health of their members, McDonough said.

"They are carrying a portion of the burden for healthcare costs so they are focused on programs that can show improvement in healthcare outcomes and can help tackle those most common and costly conditions, with a focus on those lifestyle factors that impact health. Helping consumers to have healthy lifestyles, that is what Fitbit has been known for in the past 10 years," she said.