Wearables help play a key role in the future of member engagement

The world of wearable devices and digital health apps continues to explode in size and complexity. Once a space defined by startups like Fitbit, the wearables market has attracted technology stalwarts such as Apple, Google and Amazonwith consumers spending $52 billion in the wearables market in 2020 -- 27% more than in 2019.2  

Recognizing wearables may play a role in building a best-in-class member experience and help improve health outcomes, UnitedHealthcare has integrated wearables into its broader digital member experience in chronic disease management and wellness. 

Wearables and health apps represent a part of the $3.6 billion annually the company invests in technology and innovation. UnitedHealthcare continues to explore other areas for wearables such as sleep as more employees become more comfortable with the technology, including sharing the data they generate. 

“Ensuring the seamless flow of member data from wearables into our digital ecosystem is a continued focus,” says Jeff Greely, Vice President, Digital Product at UnitedHealthcare. “Wearables can start to create a different kind of behavior around accessing care. We’re not just here when you’re sick, we're here to help you be healthy, too.”

3 key takeaways about wearables

  1. More than 75% of consumers believe devices such as wearables help them change their behavior.3 
  2. Chronic diseases drive rising cost trend, with 90% of annual U.S. health care costs associated with those suffering from diabetes and cancer and other chronic conditions.4 
  3. UnitedHealthcare has integrated wearables into chronic disease management and wellness programs to help support a more personalized member experience, improve outcomes and reduce costs.

Using digital health therapy to help manage a chronic condition

Chronic diseases drive rising cost trend, with 90% of annual U.S. health care costs associated with those suffering from diabetes and cancer and other chronic conditions.5  Diabetes is the most expensive chronic condition in the U.S. with $237 billion  spent each year on direct medical costs and $90 billion on reduced productivity.6

Last year, UnitedHealthcare launched a new digital health therapy which combined wearable tech and customized personal support with the goal of stabilizing blood sugar levels of members living with type 2 diabetes. Level2® provides participants a mobile continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) device, an activity tracker (Fitbit®), app-based alerts, and one-on-one clinical coaching to help encourage healthier lifestyle decisions spanning diet, exercise and sleep. In a pilot study, some Level2 participants no longer needed certain medications for type 2 diabetes.7

“At its core, Level2 is about engaging members to help modify their behavior. The member is wearing a biofeedback sensor that shows blood sugar levels — the goal is to flatten the line to within normal range all day,” says Dr. Gerald Hautman, Chief Medical Officer with UnitedHealthcare National Accounts. “If the member wants to stay within range, they need to modify their behavior — and we’ve been finding they that do.”

Level2 is currently available at no additional cost to eligible UnitedHealthcare members in 27 states. Financial incentives are available for some Level2 participants if they do things like consistently wear a CGM or follow personalized recommendations. 

UnitedHealthcare may expand the Level2 model to help support members with chronic conditions beyond type 2 diabetes. The company’s disease management programs, which help members with heart disease and asthma, among other chronic conditions, already include an at-home monitoring component. A designated nurse monitors biometric data from an employee’s connected devices(s) that the employee can also view on a dashboard and intervenes when numbers are out of range. 

“We’re recognizing wearables as a tool to help behavior modification, but not as the solution in and of itself,” Hautman says. “The question becomes how we can wrap around other assets such as the data stream and clinical support to help keep the member engaged in the behavior.” 

— Dr. Gerald Hautman, Chief Medical Officer with UnitedHealthcare National Accounts

Evolving the use of wearables in wellness programs

Tracking and rewarding employees for meeting activity goals through a wearable device is one way to motivate employees to sustain healthier behaviors. About 42% of U.S. consumers have used wearables to measure fitness and track health-improvement goals — up from just 17% in 2013. Plus, more than 75% of consumers believe devices help them change their behavior.8

Through its Motion program, UnitedHealthcare has provided eligible participants access to activity trackers at no additional cost and rewards members for reaching certain daily walking goals. UnitedHealthcare Motion participants have collectively walked over 511 billion steps while earning more than $60 million in rewards.9

“Motion offers the opportunity to engage members more directly in their own wellness,” Hautman says. “It’s basic, but it's critical to health care.”

To help inspire more members to develop and maintain a healthier lifestyle, UnitedHealthcare broadened Motion’s scope this year to include cycling, elliptical, running and swimming activities. Dancing, weightlifting and yoga may also qualify in the future. As wearables have become more popular, a growing number of members have begun bringing in their own device into the program. This year, UnitedHealthcare Motion participants with an Apple Watch can also receive access to 5 months of Apple Fitness+ for no additional cost.

“Part of evolving programs like Motion is acknowledging that our members are also consumers,” says Qian Qian Tang, Vice President of Product, Digital Therapeutics at UnitedHealthcare. “It’s about meeting members where they are.” 

The company’s wearables strategy also involves extending Motion’s capabilities and member rewards beyond fitness into nutrition, mindfulness and preventive actions such as flu shots. A broader goal is to further personalize insights, recommended health actions, and incentives for members based on what they may choose to share via their wearable device and mobile health apps. 

“Motion and other wellness programs are ultimately trying to use the information members are willing to share to create more value for them. For example, we may be able to guide members towards a Sleep Coaching program or our Real Appeal® (weight loss) offering,” Tang says.

Wearables may soon help diagnose and treat sleep conditions

A broader trend on the horizon may be seamless wearable device data sharing between members and primary care providers (PCPs). In the spring, a UnitedHealthcare pilot project will be able to track members’ sleep habits via a smartphone app. This use of data may one day help speed up a diagnosis and treatment. For example, a member could arrive at a PCP appointment already having shared recent sleep data, rather than being sent home to collect data for a few weeks after the appointment. 

“Encouraging members to track health data such as their movement, sleep, or mental health allows members to be in control and bring that information to a PCP upfront,” Tang says. Before that can happen, though, device manufacturers and clinical professionals will have to agree on certain standards of acceptable data being used to diagnose medical conditions, he adds. 

For more information, reach out to your consultant, broker or UnitedHealthcare representative.

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