What Do the Latest Survey Results about Consumer Interest in Wearables Really Mean—for Providers?

Oct. 5, 2016
A new study by analysts at PriceWaterhouseCoopers finds that healthcare consumers are very interested in wearable devices—and also that providers have a real opening for patient engagement around those wearables

The new study by analysts at PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) that was released this past week offered fascinating survey results. The PwC folks had gathered 1,000 responses from U.S. consumers, carefully demographically adjusted to reflect certain characteristics of the U.S. population, specifically race, ethnicity, age, and gender.

And the results were quite noteworthy. Fully 45 percent of consumers surveyed said they own a fitness band; 27 percent own a smart watch; 14 percent own a smart video or photo device, such as a GoPro; and 12 percent own smart clothing. Given the self-selecting aspect of online consumer surveys, one might well surmise a slight built-in bias in favor of technology adoption. Still, even granting a bit of an overstatement of adoption, those statistics are remarkable, as they represent more or less a doubling of ownership of at least one wearable device on the part of American consumers in just two years. As Vaughn Kauffman, a global practice leader in PwC’s Health Industries Advisory, told me, when this same survey was executed in 2014, just 21 percent of consumers surveyed owned one or more wearable devices.

And what are consumers looking for in wearable devices? Among other features, a device should have features that “rewards the frequent users of that device with monetary rewards” (54 percent); have a “gaming feature that allows the user to compete with others” (45 percent); provide the consumer with “information that that consumer would not otherwise have” (45 percent); “allow the consumer to cut back on spending” (44 percent); “have apps or features that reward frequent users with loyalty points” (43 percent); or “looks good and coordinates with the user’s wardrobe” (36 percent).

Now here’s the most interesting set of results from the survey on which the study was based. Essentially, consumers indicated that while they would be excited to receive a wearable device from any of a broad range of entities, they would most trust wearable devices provided to them by doctors and hospitals. Here’s the set of results involved:

Ø  Doctor’s office: 65 percent excited, 41 percent would trust

Ø  Hospital: 62 percent excited, 38 percent would trust

Ø  Health insurer: 62 percent excited, 34 percent would trust

Ø  Cellphone provider: 61 percent excited, 18 percent would trust

Ø  Pharmacy: 57 percent excited, 29 percent would trust

Ø  Teacher: 57 percent excited, 12 percent would trust

Ø  Entertainment provider: 57 percent excited, 10 percent would trust

Ø  Travel agent: 56 percent excited, 8 percent would trust

Ø  Cable provider: 52 percent excited, 11 percent would trust

Ø  Bank: 52 percent excited, 33 percent would trust

Ø  Car company: 50 percent excited, 9 percent would trust

That to me is a very, very heartening set of survey results. Consider that the range of levels of “excitement” in this set of results ranges from 50 to 60 percent, only a 15-point span between the lowest level and the highest; but that the level of trust that would be elicited is much wider, varying from 9 percent (car companies) to 41 percent (doctors), with doctors, hospitals, health insurers, and pharmacies trusted much more fully than all other entities that might provide consumers with wearable devices.

And that seems like a good base of trust to build on. But of course, the leaders of medical groups, hospitals, and health systems have to decide what to do about all this, and how to do it, and therein lie the complications. As PwC’s Kauffman told me, “On the provider side, I still see a bit of apprehension around taking in that data” from wearable devices, “per, what happens if they don’t act on that data? So there’s a bit of a concern over risk management there. So the first set of questions around wearables is, how was that data captured, what was the context, etc.? So there’s a whole host of implications. And even if providers take that data in, there is a bit of apprehension around whether they might be held legally liable for having that data from patients. But from the population health standpoint, there is a potentially dramatic set of results when it comes to consumer-facing devices.”

There is also a gigantic set of considerations around how to ingest data from wearables and how to try to integrate it. On the one hand, as Kauffman told me, consumers’ use of wearables “becomes a channel through which a physician can interact with a patient, including at a lower cost. So in a way, that creates a real-time dialogue with the individual. And you can tell from our research that the consumer is already there, with regard to their willingness to engage. And some providers are further down the road than others around utilizing these kinds of data for engagement. There’s the potential to extend the doctor-patient relationship to beyond the direct doctor visit interaction. And obviously, this would involve individuals opting in, as opposed to kind of a Big Brother phenomenon.”

The challenge, if the leaders of a patient care organization do decide to engage with their patients around wearables, is how to create an architecture of technology, processes, and people, that can support such activity. And inevitably, that becomes complex. If a patient in one of an organization’s care management programs for those with chronic illnesses wants their data uploaded to their electronic health record, who manages and maintains the technical aspects of the data flow? Who creates alerting systems for appropriate notification of specific results—and who creates the parameters to be used? And then who does the care management follow-up? If a patient with congestive heart failure suddenly gains a great deal of weight, what process is set up for nurse care-manager phone contact with the patient, and/or what is the protocol for setting up an immediate appointment with the patient’s primary care physician? And how is the data around that patient saved, monitored, and used for analyzing that patient’s condition and also used for analyzing broader dynamics, such as the overall patterns of patients whose data is being analyzed for rising or heightened risk for ED visits, hospitalization or rehospitalization, etc.? The questions can be endless.

In sum, the survey results that the folks at PwC limned for their study are fascinating, and offer a cornucopia of possibilities for the leaders of patient care organizations. But how provider leaders go about mining the potentialities and using them for improving care management and care delivery—if indeed they choose to do so at all—involves a set of questions that providers are only at the outset of being able to figure out.

What’s more, the scope of the opportunity was made clear later this week, with the release of a survey by HealthMine, which found that activity trackers more broadly, including both wearable devices such as smart watches, and also health apps, are now not integrated into patient care delivery at all. That HealthMine survey of 500 healthcare consumers found that the data that consumers are tracking for themselves on devices and apps is not being incorporated into their healthcare delivery: only 46 percent said that their physicians are using self-collected data in their advisement of their patients.

So, broadly speaking—looking both at wearable devices and at other phenomena, such as consumer health apps—there is clearly a world of opportunity here for clinicians and patient care organizations. And in the next few years, it seems clear that pioneers in healthcare delivery will figure out how to proceed, with results that could be full of serious promise for the health status of millions.

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