If you’re wearing a wristband that counts your steps, a patch that monitors your vital signs or a watch that tracks your heart rate, you are in the minority. And if you paid $300 or more for any of those items, you are among the nation’s quantified self-health elites.
Judging by the chatter streaming across our social media feeds, one would think every man, woman, child is sporting a health “wearable.” But in reality, these are the early days of the devices that promise to help us live longer, healthier, more active lives.
Despite the buzz, just 21% of Americans own a health wearable, according to a new consumer survey by PwC’s Health Research Institute, and only 10% of them use it daily. Even fewer consumers – 5% of respondents — expressed a willingness to spend at least $300 for a device. Many wearables today are a passing fancy – worn for a few months then tucked away in a drawer awaiting a battery charge or fresh inspiration to get up and get moving again.
As Genentech CEO Ian Clark recently put it, health wearables are “a bit trivial right now.” And it seems even the folks claiming to be wearing the devices can’t be trusted – reports have begun circulating of employees enlisting their more active coworkers to wear the device and collect fitness points on their behalf.
Yet wearables present remarkable opportunities for a nation and industry grappling with the twin challenges of improving health and controlling healthcare spending. Across the board, consumers, clinicians, insurers and employers express high hopes for the power of these new devices.
Indeed, 56% of consumers tell us they believe wearables could add 10 years to the average life span, while 46% think the devices will reduce obesity in a nation in which two in three adults is overweight or obese. It’s hard to think of a pill, surgery or program that has garnered such faith in recent years.
Investors, meanwhile, have been voting with their bank accounts. In the first half of this year alone, digital health startups had raised $2.3 billion – more than in all of 2013. And of that, more than $200 million went to devices such as wearables.
So how to narrow the gulf between today’s tepid reality and the red hot aspirations for health wearables?
The answer lies in a combination of incentives and truly useful data that arms a patient and care team with information that improves health outcomes. Nearly 70% of consumers tell HRI they would wear a device provided by an employer and permit the data to be shared in an anonymous pool – provided they got a discount on their health insurance premiums.
For clinicians who must increasingly earn their keep by demonstrating improved health outcomes of patients, wearables offer another tool for understanding what’s happening away from the hospital or doctor’s office. The good news for providers is that consumers are most willing to share their personal wearables information with their physician, ranking doctors above banks, tech firms or other industries looking to capitalize on the wearables craze.
A well-designed wearable can aid remote patient monitoring, making life more convenient for patients and less expensive for the system. Pharmaceutical life sciences companies are beginning to explore how wearables can quicken recruitment for clinical trials and reduce the number of costly investigator visits.
And in the end perhaps the most promising wearable isn’t exactly worn; but kept close by. Doctors and hospitals are already using it to help manage patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma, analyzing regular data downloads for anything out of the ordinary.
The device? The mobile phone.
Ceci Connolly is the health practice lead for PwC and a frequent contributor to THCB.
 Lee, Stephanie M., “Genentech CEO wonders if wearables craze is ‘a bit trivial,’ San Francisco Chronicle, http://blog.sfgate.com/techchron/2014/08/21/genentech-ceo-wonders-if-wearables-craze-is-a-bit-trivial, Aug. 21, 2014.
 Rock Health, “2014 Midyear Digital Health Funding Update: Obliterating Records,” http://rockhealth.com/2014/06/2014-midyear-digital-health-funding-update, June 30, 2014.