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Health wearables: Privacy threat?

By Jay MacDonald ·
Thursday, August 28, 2014
Posted: 2 pm ET

Does it seem like your health insurance provider wants to be your BFF these days?

My insurer has definitely become chummy of late, inviting me to monitor my workouts and chart my progress against a laundry list of health metrics using a variety of cool tools, including workout wearables like FitBit. It's all ostensibly for my own good, of course.

Which would ordinarily strike me as doggone considerate except for one catch: They'd like to record my vital signs as well. Which in my view is WTMI (way too much information).

Some insurers and employers take this busybody buddy-ness one step further and sweeten the deal by knocking a few hundred bucks off your health insurance cost in exchange for a real-time peek at your heart rate, glucose levels, body temperature and other data.



'Dangerous' trend?

The growing practice is definitely raising the blood pressure of privacy advocates like Pam Dixon, founder of the World Privacy Forum, a nonprofit public interest research group based in San Diego. She says wearable devices are quickly advancing beyond merely tracking footsteps and will soon provide the type of health metrics that could one day be used against you in the form of higher health insurance rates.

"The focus on preventive health at the expense of privacy is dangerous," she told Bloomberg recently.

In this regard, FitBit, Jawbone, et al may be the warm-fuzzy forerunners of financial misfortune for those too forthcoming with details of their own inner workings.

Of course, employers and insurers aren't offering to pump you up solely out of the goodness of their hearts. There are incentives within the Affordable Care Act that reward insurers for consumer satisfaction. Toward that goal, Obamacare allows companies to spend up to 30 percent of their annual health insurance premiums on wellness incentives. And while fitness initiatives haven't yet been shown definitively to save health insurers money, one suspects they do -- by reducing more expensive health claims and/or corroborating initial health underwriting concerns.

For 1 employer: $300K savings

Bloomberg recently demonstrated how the FitBit trend is already paying off for employers. When Chris Barbin, CEO of San Francisco IT consultants Appirio, shared with his insurer the FitBit data of 400 employees who take part in the company's voluntary fitness program, he was able to shave $300,000 off Appirio's $5 million annual insurance cost.

Henry Wang, a researcher who tracks the trend for Parks Associates, points out that federal laws prevent employers from divulging certain types of data about their workers without the employees' permission.

The question that's ahead for many of us is: Would it be worth a couple hundred bucks to give the boss a peek at your stats?

Here's the latest on employer wellness programs.

Follow me on Twitter: @omnisaurus

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Veteran contributing editor Jay MacDonald is co-author of "Future Millionaires' Guidebook."

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