Aetna makes large bet on well­ness with Ap­ple Watches

Modern Healthcare - - NEWS - By Bob Her­man

They’re nearly ubiq­ui­tous now—the buzzy arm ac­ces­sories that track your ac­tiv­ity and heart rate and other mea­sures of well-be­ing.

And last week, health in­surer Aetna dou­bled down on the well­ness prom­ises of one of the most pop­u­lar wear­ables—the Ap­ple Watch—by of­fer­ing it for free to its em­ploy­ees as part of its well­ness pro­gram.

How­ever, com­pa­nies that have in­vested in the de­vices with the hope of get­ting peo­ple to be more ac­tive and healthy have to prove wear­able de­vices and well­ness pro­grams mean­ing­fully change con­sumer be­hav­ior, which has of­ten worked bet­ter in the­ory than in prac­tice.

“These types of tech­nolo­gies can re­ally help to fa­cil­i­tate be­hav­ior change, but the de­vices them­selves are not what drive be­hav­ior change,” said Dr. Mitesh Pa­tel, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of medicine at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia. “What drives be­hav­ior change are en­gage­ment strate­gies.”

Aetna em­ploy­ees start­ing next year will re­ceive an Ap­ple Watch. Aetna also will sub­si­dize a “sig­nif­i­cant por­tion” of the Ap­ple Watch cost for some large em­ploy­ers and groups that con­tract with Aetna for health in­sur­ance ser­vices.

Aetna will pair the Ap­ple Watch with spe­cific apps that can help its em­ploy­ees and other Aetna mem­bers re­fill their med­i­ca­tions or pay their bill through Ap­ple Wal­let.

The price of most Ap­ple Watch mod­els starts around $300. Buy­ing the av­er­age smart­watch for all 50,000 em­ploy­ees would cost Aetna roughly $15 mil­lion, or about 2% of Aetna’s sec­ond-quar­ter profit, but it’s not clear if Ap­ple gave Aetna a dis­count for bulk pur­chas­ing. Aetna spokesman Ethan Slavin said the com­pany is not re­leas­ing fi­nan­cial terms of the agree­ment. Ap­ple did not re­spond to in­ter­view re­quests.

Slavin said there are no strings at­tached to the Ap­ple Watches. Aetna’s well­ness pro­gram is “com­pletely vol­un­tary,” and em­ploy­ees don’t have to do any­thing to be el­i­gi­ble for the watch, he said. Aetna has a re­im­burse­ment com­po­nent within its well­ness pro­gram, but no de­tails were pro­vided.

Be­yond the mar­ket­ing ploy of Aetna’s in­vest­ment in the Ap­ple Watch is the as­sump­tion that smart de­vices will give peo­ple in­cen­tives to im­prove their health. Other health in­sur­ers have bought into that idea. Unit­edHealth­care is of­fer­ing fit­ness track­ers for free to some of its small and medium-size em­ploy­ers.

Yet there is wide skep­ti­cism that well­ness pro­grams im­prove health and lower costs. And many health pol­icy ex­perts be­lieve if wear­able de­vices and fit­ness track­ers are used in well­ness pro­grams, be­hav­ioral eco­nom­ics should shape the in­cen­tives.

For ex­am­ple, Pa­tel and his col­leagues re­cently con­ducted a ran­dom­ized con­trolled trial with peo­ple who wore wear­able de­vices that counted steps. They found that peo­ple were more likely to be phys­i­cally ac­tive if the fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives were “framed as a loss.” In this case, the most ac­tive par­tic­i­pants were those who were given an up­front amount of $42 but lost $1.40 ev­ery day they did not com­plete their goal.

“The way you de­sign and de­liver your in­cen­tive is re­ally, re­ally im­por­tant,” Pa­tel said.

AP PHOTO

Be­yond the mar­ket­ing ploy of Aetna’s in­vest­ment in the Ap­ple Watch is the as­sump­tion that smart de­vices will give peo­ple in­cen­tives to im­prove their health.

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