Is the Wearable Health Movement Sustainable?

on May 15, 2015
Reading Time: 4 minutes

One of the hottest areas of wearables are fitness monitors from Fitbit, Misfit, Jawbone, Garmin, etc. In 2014, approx 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:

“The annual smart wearable healthcare market volume will grow from $2 billion in 2014 to $41 billion in 2020, a compound annual growth rate of 65%.”
– Source: Soreon Research

“Over 80% of consumers said an important benefit of wearable tech is its potential to make healthcare more convenient.”
– Source: PwC

“68% of consumers would wear employer-provided wearables streaming anonymous data to an information pool in exchange for lower health insurance costs.”
– Source: PwC

“The wearable band market grew by 684% on a worldwide basis in the first half of 2014 compared with the first half of 2013.”
– Source: Canalys

“Today, 1 in 5 American’s own some type of wearable technology.”
– Source: PwC

“82% of wearable users believe that wearable tech has enhanced their lives.”
– Source: Rock Health

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 consumer smartwatches will increase and dedicated health wearables will decrease over time. This is not a surprise as a smartwatch is multi-purpose 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 their own as they understand this shift in consumer thinking and want to have their own smartwatch option available to customers. This move will be an important part of their $100 million IPO strategy going forward.

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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.

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What intrigues me most about this chart is that 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 recent New Yorker article 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:

“I look back on the days I averaged only thirty thousand steps, and think, Honestly, how lazy can you get? When I hit thirty-five thousand steps a day, Fitbit sent me an e-badge, and then one for forty thousand, and forty-five thousand. Now I’m up to sixty thousand, which is twenty-five and a half miles. Walking that distance at the age of fifty-seven, with completely flat feet while lugging a heavy bag of garbage, takes close to nine hours—a big block of time, but hardly wasted.”

Health wearables apparently are now part of our culture.

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 add 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% of physicians want patients to monitor their health parameters at home. And HMO’s 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% of healthcare 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% over the course of five years and remote patient monitoring technologies could save our healthcare 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 US, are going to be more health conscience. 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.