Chad Michael Van Alstin,
Features Editor

Like many of you, I attended September’s AHIMA conference in New Orleans. In between enjoyably regrettable trips to the French Quarter, I walked the show floor and met dozens of intelligent, interesting people on both the provider and vendor side.

With all of the quality topics of discussion to be had, it’s strange that one of my biggest takeaways happened during a coffee break just outside the showroom. The gentleman in front of me pulled up his sleeve to look at his health band and caught me tossing a glance at his wrist. “It’s a Garmin Vivosmart,” he said. “What kind do you have?”

I was a bit confused. Were we all supposed to have one? I was forced to admit that I didn’t wear any health device – or use any health apps, for that matter. Undoubtedly, this is a terrible faux pas for those of us involved with the industry. I considered mentioning I carry around my step-counting Nintendo 3DS, though I knew in my heart that didn’t count since I was unaware if that feature was turned on, let alone what purpose it serves beyond granting me coins to play video games more effectively.

After this incident, the ubiquity of wearables suddenly became clear to me – they were everywhere. A number of booths were offering health bands as free giveaways, and the majority of the wrists I encountered were wearing ominous, colored bands … which I assume were gathering data right in front of my eyes!

I also homed in on any mention of wearables during the conversations I had with various individuals, taking a mental note whenever data analytics from the devices or integrating what they collect into an EMR was mentioned. It seemed that most vendors and providers alike agreed that wearable information is a goldmine for healthcare organizations, both in terms of revenue and care quality. But just how exactly these devices will lead to better care beyond a few anecdotal cases was a question that never elicited a firm answer.

I think it’s worth questioning if improving health is what wearables are designed to do in the first place. These are devices that measure steps taken, stairs climbed, heart rate, workout regimens, sleeping patterns, calories burned, and more. This information is then automatically graphed by the application so that progress and trends can be observed – without question, all of that data is valuable to many organizations, and giving it up is so easy that the wearer barely even realizes they’re doing it.

But, is a doctor, who is reimbursed for the care they provide, really going to find a patient’s FitBit data to be relevant and scientifically valid? I’m not so sure. And regardless, I’m not sure the good outweighs the bad.

One thing I find most concerning is that IT privacy and security experts seem to have a different take on these devices. In a conversation that is partially published in this issue of HMT, an expert on data security from Symantec, David Finn, told me many health apps store data in multiple places and gather more information than wearers may think – how does that keep me healthy? Developers clearly have another plan for user data, so what is it?

For a cautiously paranoid guy like me, there’s something about transmitting data through insecure means – and I consider sharing information with an app or a company to be insecure – that just rubs me the wrong way. Somewhere out there, an algorithm would know how much of an out-of-shape insomniac I am, and that frightening prospect embarrasses me enough to stay away from health gizmos altogether.

If my privacy is going to be on the line, I want to at least be able to conclude that I’m getting healthier as a result – and I think the jury is still out on what exactly to do with wearables to make the data they mine a path to truly healthier people.  I’ve always thought that claim was little more than a PR angle, and I’ve never bought into the hype.

Am I wrong? Are these health bands and other consumer wearables leading to better care en masse? Is the privacy risk they pose insignificant? Let me know at [email protected].