CES 2019

Wearable and App Users Tracking Health Tech’s Next Step

Health app users show greatest interest in medication management, blood pressure for future

Blake Gurfein of Tivic Health Systems demonstrates his company's sinus pain reliever at CES 2019 in Las Vegas, which is featuring makers of health-related devices, among other gadgets. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)
  • 34% of adults use mobile health apps — mostly for monitoring heart rate and exercise.

  • 27% use fitness and wellness wearable technology.

  • Among those who don’t use wearables, cost and lack of interest are the main deterrents.

Step-trackers and calorie counters have enjoyed their days in the sun, but consumers are ready for their smartphones to step up and take even more responsibility for their health — starting with their medication schedule.

That’s according to new Morning Consult data diving into consumers’ views of technology, such as smartphone applications and fitness wearables, that allows them to track and manage their health conditions. While 15 percent of health app users say they currently use one to manage their medications, 52 percent of those who do not said they would consider using one in the future, pointing to a promising market for developers seeking to determine what health-conscious consumers are looking for.

The survey, which polled 2,201 U.S. adults last month, found that 34 percent currently track or manage their health with the help of a mobile app.

Health app users tend to be wealthier: People making at least $100,000 a year are 18 percentage points more likely to use health apps than those who make less than $50,000 (45 to 27 percent). And use rises among people with at least a college degree.

Eighty-five percent of the 744 adults who use health apps use exercise or heart-rate monitoring apps, with use virtually equal across all age groups.

That compares with 48 percent of users tracking weight, 44 percent tracking diet and 42 percent tracking sleep — apps with stronger appeal among young adults. Unsurprisingly, younger people are adopting health tracking apps at higher rates: Forty-six percent of the 18- to 29-year-old age group say they use them compared to 28 percent of those ages 55 to 64.

But for nearly every health-tracking feature Morning Consult polled on, the share of health app users who expressed interest in a particular function exceeded the share of those currently using that function. The lone exceptions were exercise or heart monitoring — which are already wildly popular — and menstruation cycle tracking.

The gap was widest for blood pressure and medication management — two areas showing promise for the health technology sector, especially as providers lean into telehealth opportunities. For example, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recently issued new codes for 2019 to reimburse providers for remote patient monitoring of parameters including blood pressure.

CMS has not yet offered specifics in the final rule on what technology qualifies, but the agency plans to issue forthcoming guidance to help inform practitioners and stakeholders on these issues.

Fifty-five percent of adults who do not track blood pressure with an app said they would consider it, compared to 16 percent who currently do, indicating another potential growth market.

Katie D. McMillan, associate director of Duke Mobile App Gateway, which supports digital health and mobile app research and development at Duke University, said via email that the interest in apps that help users track their medications makes sense given that the simultaneous use of multiple medications is a reality for many Americans.  

Medication tracking “is attractive to manage the complexity of multiple conditions and to better improve management of those conditions for more meaningful conversations with doctors,” she said.

Most health-related apps and wearables currently on the market are not medical-grade devices, but experts predict they will play increasingly significant roles in consumers’ health regimens and care delivery models.

Software and devices can’t yet entirely replace consultative and diagnostic services, said Mike Feibus, president of independent market research firm FeibusTech, but what they can do is act as a “first responder” by alerting users of potential abnormalities and nudging them to see a doctor.

The digital health sector drew a record-breaking nearly $8.1 billion in investments last year, according to digital health-focused venture fund Rock Health, as mounting interest and new demands from consumers and insurance companies incentivize manufacturers to push their capabilities beyond tracking steps and calories. Consumer adoption and venture funding have grown consistently year over year, McMillan said.

According to a separate Morning Consult poll surveying 2,202 U.S. adults, 27 percent of adults currently own and use wearables to monitor things such as heart rate, blood pressure, physical activity or other vitals.

Companies such as Fitbit Inc., Apple Inc. and Garmin Ltd. have updated their products with cutting-edge technology in the last few years, Feibus said, moving beyond step totals toward valuable offerings such as increasingly automatic exercise detection and oxygen sensors to provide users constructive insights about their fitness.

A 33-percent plurality of wearable users cite achieving their fitness goals as their primary motivation for using the technology, and 32 percent say they use wearables to track their health data. (Both Morning Consult polls have a margin of error of 2 points.)

Among the 73 percent of adults who don’t use wearables, cost is the principal deterrent, with even the most basic activity trackers starting at around $100. Twenty-six percent chose this reason for not using wearables, while a slightly smaller share (21 percent) said they simply have no interest in tracking their health data.

Although uneasiness about privacy dissuaded only 6 percent of those who do not use wearables, 69 percent of app users in the separate survey about health-tracking apps reported they were concerned about their data privacy.

Wearables as medical-grade devices are likely to find a receptive market: Sixty-three percent of U.S. adults said they would be likely to try a Food and Drug Administration-approved app or online tool as part of a treatment for a medical condition they currently have or could have in the future. Apps and connected devices such as Bluetooth or cellular blood pressure cuffs, pill organizers and glucometers can provide an important look into what’s happening beyond the clinic.

Wearables have potential in the preventive health and care management spaces, according to Feibus, because payers see value in keeping patients active, and may increasingly move toward subsidizing these devices if they indeed improve health outcomes. Providers are engaged in ongoing debates about how to streamline data from health apps directly into electronic health records.

“Ninety percent of our lives are lived outside of the walls of the hospital or clinic, and that is largely a black box for clinicians,” McMillan said. Through wearables and apps, “there is a lot of optimism that improved patient engagement can better manage chronic conditions, reduce hospital readmissions, and drive the health system towards an effective value-based care model.”

Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized the consumers described as nonusers.

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