Wellness Technology; Tools or Miracles?

April 26, 2017

Technology has taken center stage in the wellness space during recent years. Devices that can track an individual’s physical activity, websites that can reward healthy behaviors and messaging platforms that can be filtered with push notifications based on health risks or demographics are widely abundant.  So, as technology and tools get “smarter”, why aren’t people getting healthier?

While technology can serve as a useful tool when delivering population health and well-being programs, is it not a stand-alone solution. Let’s say that again. Technology is a tool, not the solution. Let’s look at some of the more popular wellness technologies.

Wearable Fitness Devices. Wearables have gotten a lot of attention over the last few years and have grown in popularity.  From basic pedometers to Fitbits and Jawbones along with web portals to track and reward usage. Companies are even purchasing Fitbits for entire populations in hopes of improving employee health through increased physical activity. Fitbits, which average $100 per device have been the leader in the market, accounting for nearly 25% market share in 2016 according to the International Data Corporation (IDC) reports. A new research report from Juniper Research says almost 60 million fitness trackers will be in use by 2018.

Do wearable fitness devices work? 

Sure they work to track physical activity and other data.  But the real question is, “does the device actually deliver sustained long-term behavior change and health improvements?”  Last year, results from the IDEA clinical trial were published. The trial took place at the University of Pittsburgh and assessed the impact wearable devices, along with lifestyle intervention, had on long-term weight loss. At the end of two years, those without access to the wearable technology lost an average of 13 pounds. Those with the wearable device lost an average of 7.7 pounds.(1)  So from one perspective someone can say the wearable device worked, but you can also say that those who relied on lifestyle interventions and their own intrinsic motivation to lose weight worked much better!

Do wearable fitness devices hurt?

There is no harm. Wearable devices can be fun, informative and offer helpful reminders.  But a recent editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association claims that now more than 50% of the people who buy fitness trackers ultimately stop using them, with 33% quitting within six months of the devices’ purchase.(2)   Thus, while they continue to be available as tools, devices do not appear to offer a long-term sustainable “behavior change solution”.

Online Wellness Portals.  Many include interactive health challenges, reward tracking for incentives, health data analytics and health coaching modules. The best online portals are the ones that employees actively visit and utilize.  The first and biggest hurdle for a successful online portal is to actually drive the employees to go to the site or download the app. Once the user is connected, keeping them engaged in behavior change or motivational programs is the second hurdle. The key to ongoing sustained engagement on a health portal is adding the human element to the technology. You can have the best automated push notification or communication technology, but that’s not what resonates with most people. Routine generic messages sent to encourage someone to get up and walk every hour, or drink more water, will never be as impactful as communication coming from a personalized, genuine, trusting connection someone has with a coach waiting and ready to help.

Choosing the best technology for your program is daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Before your eyes drift towards that “turnkey” technology solution because it is bright and shiny, with lots of the bells and whistles, look for substance.   Look for that essential human element and connection that will give it legs.  We all know that one size fits all wellness programs don’t work, so why not start by building your program around the “human-to-human” connection that will make it all work, maximize employee engagement and deliver results?

Technology can be a useful tool to support behavior improvement, but it can’t perform miracles. Behavior change is hard to do on your own.  Most of us need help along the way.  To promote and reinforce behavior change, people need to be intrinsically motivated to achieve lasting success.  Contact us to discover how our onsite wellness coaches’ solution capitalizes on the combination of high touch human connectivity with high-tech solutions to maximize employee engagement and population well-being.

(1)  JAMA Article

(2)  The Atlantic Article