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Is the Wearable Health Movement Sustainable?

By 2018, 70 percent of health-care organizations worldwide will invest in consumer-facing technology including apps, wearables, remote monitoring and virtual care.


A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

One of the hottest areas of wearables is fitness monitors from Fitbit, Misfit, Jawbone, Garmin, etc. In 2014, approximately 90 million were sold and the interest in using some type of wearable to monitor health continues to be strong. The folks at eMedCert collected some interesting data points that put the interest and demand in health wearables into perspective:

While dedicated health wearables blazed the trail in health monitoring, the Apple Watch and smartwatches in general look like they could end up with the lion’s share of the health wearable market in the future. The chart below from 451 Research shows that consumer smartwatches will increase and dedicated health wearables will decrease over time.

This is not a surprise, as a smartwatch is multipurpose, and most include health-monitoring apps, while dedicated health wearables are single- purpose. That is why Fitbit is moving fast to create a smartwatch of its own as it understands this shift in consumer thinking and want to its own smartwatch option available to customers. This move will be an important part of Fitbit’s $100 million IPO strategy going forward.

The 451 Research chart below lays out the most important health and fitness features consumers want. Note that “pedometer” is at the top of the list although “heart rate” and “blood pressure monitoring” are high, too.

What intrigues me most about this chart is that the pedometer tops this list. Pedometers have been on the market for decades, and most were analog until only recently. But when they went digital, they became a must-have feature for many people.

On June 1, 2012, I had triple-bypass surgery, and ever since, I have had to monitor my health closely. I was told to walk at least 10,000 steps each day. At first, I just used a Radio Shack analog pedometer. But once the Jawbone came out, I have worn some type of wearable step and heart monitor. (Side note: When I had my triple bypass, they used the vein from my left arm to repair the arteries. So when I wear the Apple Watch on my left arm, I have no pulse, and the watch can’t track my heart rate.)

As a heart patient, I have a compelling reason to want a health wearable. And while a lot of people strive to take care of their health, tools like a belt-clipped pedometer were hardly used until it showed up on an all-day wearable. The difference seems to be that the pedometer of the past was an add-on, used only to monitor a dedicated exercise, while a wearable with this feature is less intrusive and always on and with you.

When the Fitbit, Jawbone and other health wearables came out, many people saw these as passing fads. But they struck a real chord, not only with those who regularly exercised, but with mainstream consumers, too. I happened upon a fairly recent New Yorker essay by author and humorist David Sedaris, in which he chronicled his love/hate affair with his Fitbit. His tongue-in-cheek commentary chronicles his obsession with having to continue to beat his step record. The essay is a great, funny read:

Perhaps the major thing Fitbit and other health wearables have done is to bring the importance of activity to the forefront. Using these types of health wearables, whether in a dedicated device or a smartwatch, makes monitoring one’s health an integrated part of a lifestyle. The Apple Watch has a feature that, every two hours or so, reminds me to stand up and walk around. It is becoming second-nature to me now, while in the past, I would sit and write for hours, never leaving my chair unless I had to hit the loo.

The health wearable market is past being a fad. Dedicated wearables that monitor steps, calories burned, etc., have become cheap enough that most people can afford them. And smartwatches are on track to become an even more important wearable that includes health-monitoring apps and adds more versatility to the overall device market.

However, I think it will be the health industry that makes the health wearable a mainstream monitoring tool in the future. According to Orange Healthcare, 88 percent of physicians want patients to monitor their health parameters at home. And HMOs and health-care insurers are making wearable health monitoring a key tenet of future health plans. As one HMO exec told me, it is much cheaper to keep a person healthy than it is for them to get sick and have to cover hospital expenses.

According to IDC Health Insights, by 2018, 70 percent of health-care organizations worldwide will invest in consumer-facing technology including apps, wearables, remote monitoring, and virtual care. According to CDW Healthcare, wearable technology could drop hospital costs by as much as 16 percent over the course of five years, and remote patient-monitoring technologies could save our health-care system $200 billion over the next 25 years.

Lowering health-care insurance premiums and cutting hospital costs will be the real reason the wearable health movement will be sustainable. Obamacare has put personal health care on the front page, and pretty much insured that people, at least in the U.S., are going to be more health-conscious. And, if a health wearable is prescribed or highly recommended by their doctor and health insurer, more and more people will adopt its use and make it a part of their normal lifestyle.

This part of the tech market, whether delivered via a dedicated health wearable or through a smartwatch, will continue to grow and become an important part of our wearable future.

Tim Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981, and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others. Reach him @Bajarin.

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