Starting on January 1, about 4,000 patients with type 2 diabetes will be eligible to receive a Fitbit Inspire device after they complete their annual diabetic retinal exam. They’ll also be able to receive coaching and educational materials through Fitbit’s platform.
“It’s really a business we’ve been in for many years,” said Amy McDonough, senior vice president and general manager of Fitbit Health Solutions. “What we’re excited about with this partnership is it’s helping us to broaden the populations we’re able to reach.”
The partnership would not only solidify Fitbit’s reputation as a health device, but it would also give the company a foothold in a large potential market. About one in five people in the U.S. are covered by Medicaid.
Fitbit already has a significant presence in the employer healthcare market. It works with more than 1,600 employers and 100 health plans. In recent years, the company also began offering its devices as a benefit to Medicare enrollees. Next year, the company will be in three insurers’ Medicare Advantage plans, McDonough said.
“We’re excited about this because it continues to show a deepening integration into health care,” McDonough said.
How effective is it?
Even with the added credibility from these partnerships, Fitbit stops short of being considered a medical device. Since fitness trackers are considered low risk devices, they are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
Last year, Fitbit acquired health coaching platform Twine Health, which conducted two randomized studies demonstrating its software’s efficacy in helping users decrease their systolic blood pressure and helping patients with diabetes lower their hemoglobin A1C levels. But both studies were small, with just over 40 participants each.
“As the consumer demand for fitness trackers continues to grow and manufacturers seek to add additional health marker functions, it’s very likely that healthcare providers might see this information as a rich source of health data for their patients,” Chris Lavanchy, engineering director for the ECRI Institute, wrote in an emailed statement. “But, buyers need to aware that most of these consumer marketed trackers are not required to validate the performance of the functions they offer. It is not easy to determine what performance testing the manufacturer actually conducted.”
The ECRI Institute has not conducted a full evaluation of Fitbit’s devices, but recently tested three wearable brands that claim to measure blood pressure. None of them met the performance standards used by the FDA to approve blood pressure monitors for medical application.
For Fitbit’s offering through WellCare, enrollees will receive a Fitbit Inspire device, as well as access to educational materials and activities. The devices can track steps, exercise and sleep. Users will also have access to Fitbit’s app, which provides access to their activity data, nutrition tracking and a social component where they can connect with other users.
That social component is key to keeping users engaged with the device.
“We’re all more accountable when we have a social network supporting our goals,” McDonough said.
Fitbit faces one major obstacle: many wearable devices end up spending more time in the drawer than on users’ wrists. Roughly 18 percent of fitness trackers saw a drop-off in use after the initial purchase, according to a 2016 survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers.
McDonough said Fitbit combats this by building better battery life and offering users personalized insights based on their data. For example, if a user was very active on the weekends, but had trouble meeting their step count Monday through Friday, how might they incorporate that into their work week?
“Personalized insights are exciting and motivating for people because they get more out of the device the more they wear it,” McDonough said. “A good number of our users are looking to lose weight, manage their weight, or look at a good resting heart rate. Those are things that you can make a meaningful impact on in just a couple of months.”
Ramon Llamas, a research director with market intelligence firm International Data Corporation, said Fitbit should be well-prepared for the partnership. Where Fitbit shines, he said, is in offering much more to its users than counting steps.
“It can’t just be about the device,” he said. “The big thing here, they will offer some sort of support through (Fitbit’s) app, or the WellCare program to keep people engaged.”
In the future, Llamas said to look for wearable device makers to offer more tailored suggestions to users. While wearables have historically been good at descriptive data, such as explaining how many steps you took or how much you slept in a given day, they’re now looking to add more concrete suggestions to improve users’ health. Earlier this year, Fitbit launched its premium subscription service, which provides customized exercise programs for users. The company plans to launch a one-on-one coaching service next year.
“Going forward, there has to be greater interest among wellness plans to offer prescriptive data,” Llamas said. “Now in addition to having data, you also have access to experts. That’s valuable to folks who need extra assistance and can’t do it all by themselves.”
WellCare of Georgia did not respond to requests for comment.
Photo credit: Fitbit