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Get a discount on health care — if you wear a tracking bracelet

Molly Wood Oct 11, 2013

Get a discount on health care — if you wear a tracking bracelet

Molly Wood Oct 11, 2013

The Affordable Care Act increases the size of the health care discount employers can give, as long as those workers take steps to get healthier. Up to 30 percent of health care costs can now be tied to participation in workplace wellness plans. But instead of just asking employees to submit medical histories or do lunchtime yoga, some workplaces could try something more high-tech: using health tracking devices that count your every step.

Tasting Table, a daily email for foodies, isn’t offering their employees insurance discounts, but it does give a glimpse of this possible future.

At their office in New York City’s SoHo, Sam Bernstein stands at her desk and scrolls through her coworkers’ sleep habits on her smartphone. “Elyse didn’t get that much deep sleep. Sarah Kay did. Kalisa: Great night’s sleep. That’s cool,” Bernstein laughs.

She can see what time her coworkers’ fell asleep and woke up, their exercise routines, how many steps they’ve taken and when throughout the day.

The source of the data is the Jawbone Up: an activity-tracking app and rubber wristband worn 24 hours a day. Bernstein and most of her coworkers received them at a staff lunch a week earlier from Tasting Table CEO Geoff Bartokovics. “What’s one of the challenges around working at Tasting Table when it comes to health?” he asked a couple dozen employees. “Lauren?” “Too much food!” account manager Lauren Smith responded.

To encourage fitness, Bartokovics was giving the fitness bracelet to every employee who wanted it: an offer all but one accepted. He also announced a contest, in which the person who walked more than 10,000 steps the most days in the first month would win free fitness classes.

It’s a small incentive for a staff that already walks a lot in pedestrian-friendly Manhattan. But big insurance companies are backing software that could help employers tie the data directly to wellness programs run by third parties, thus using that tracking data to offer lower monthly premiums.

“It’s a surveillance program,” says Heather Patterson, a privacy law scholar at NYU. “It’s a self-surveillance program.”

Patterson notes that the data captured by these devices isn’t subject to the same regulation as medical data, even though it can be deeply personal. She also has found that even afficianados of the technology can end up oversharing, simply because the devices are on 24/7. “People tend to forget that they’re wearing them, they forget that this data is being collected all the time and transmitted,” says Patterson.

From tracking when you go to bed to how much you weigh, personal health data is potentially useful to doctors and insurers. But, especially when it comes to the activity data that today’s health tracking devices collect, one of the primary uses is simply to help motivate people.

“The research has already been done to know what’s not good. and what people could be doing to lead healthier lives,” says mobile heallth expert and Cornell Tech computer science professor Deborah Estrin. “The puzzle is that it’s clearly so hard to help indivuals and communities to make those changes.”

At Tasting Table, the changes have been modest. A week into its bracelet experiment, Sam Bernstein says she gets excited when she has time to walk home. “And the other day, I was making coffee, and waiting for it to finish brewing, so I was just walking laps around the island over there,” she says.

Her motivation comes less from the fitness classes she could win, than from the old-fashioned, public peer pressure she gets from her coworkers.

“It’s fun that everyone’s doing it,” she says. “I’m not sure how interested I’d be if it was just me.”

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