A Mystery Mission in LA: Aetna, Apple, and a Vision of Digital Health’s Future, Part 1

It was an invitation too intriguing to refuse: fly to LA to participate in a “top-secret mission” related to digital health. Instructions? Bring workout clothes. Don’t disclose your location. “We can’t say much. Just enough for you to quickly pack your bags, fly to California and participate in an exclusive Apple Watch from Aetna event – all expenses paid.” Generally, I’d file this type of message in the junk mail folder, but knowing that Apple takes secrecy seriously, I did some background sleuthing and decided it looked legit.

The mystery unfolded last week as I stepped into a black car at LAX with a secretive driver who joked that I and his other two passengers (who had received similar invites) would have to cover our faces as we drove through town. (Yikes!) When we arrived at a hip “concept” hotel I felt more at ease, and relaxed into enjoying the so-called mission with a glass of wine and some discussion of trends in the digital health industry. Over the course of a couple of days I was fortunate to join a group of new (and some old) friends to exchange ideas, take a challenging hike to the peak of Runyon Canyon Park, interact with Apple and Aetna execs, try out some new technologies, and get a glimpse of what both Aetna and Apple are envisioning for the future of digital health. I was assigned to one of several teams named after famous movies (in keeping with the Tinseltown theme) a personalized agenda, and some critical tools for the modern adventurer, including a bandana, water bottles, a phone charger, and, naturally, a selfie stick.

For about a year Aetna has used the Apple watch as part of an integrated wellness program available to its 50 thousand employees and those of several partner organizations it insures, such as Hartford HealthCare, which was represented among the participants in the mystery mission. Both companies are poised to expand the program.

Why all the secrecy? For Apple, it’s par for the course (and mission participants still can’t disclose all the details of what Apple shared), but this event was primarily arranged by Aetna for its own employees and a few key partners. Most of the 25 or so participants were staff from divisions throughout Aetna who had contributed to its partnership with Apple to date—some by inspiring others. For example, an Aetna employee named Nora lost more than 100 pounds in a year with support from the program. A handful of Aetna outsiders/digital health insiders were also included in the mission order to provide diverse perspectives and help generate new ideas.

In my opinion (though truthfully it remains a bit of a mystery) the top-secret approach was intended to enhance the fun factor for participants—and it worked. The experience was exciting, playful, and edgy, with a generous sprinkle of Hollywood glitter. If Aetna and Apple can harness that kind of energy to motivate people toward better health, more power to them. While I don’t imagine Aetna and its partners will be rewarding large numbers of people with glitzy Californian adventures comparable to this one, the tone and content of the so-called mission shows that they are thinking outside of the proverbial box. Just as the Apple watch takes health and healthcare outside of the hospital and onto your wrist, Aetna is taking traditional workplace wellness programs well beyond the walls of the office.

Stay tuned for further thoughts on the Aetna Apple partnership and its implications for digital health.

Lygeia Ricciardi is President of Clear Voice Consulting, LLC. www.lygeia.com @Lygeia

Author’s statement of conflict of interest:  I am not employed by Aetna or Apple. While my participation in the event described was paid for by Aetna, I was not required or asked to write about her experience.

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14 replies »

  1. Having trouble understanding the point of this post, other than the incredible coolness of being invited to this high concept, exclusive event.

    So what?

  2. Peter — Agree with you totally on subsidies that favor production of unhealthy vs healthy foods. Also, taxes on soda and cigarettes appear to be successful in cutting consumption. IMHO we need both economic incentives (like the ones you mention) AND changes in our environment including the technology we use. Apps, wearables, and other objects embedded with technology can inform us about our activities and guide us to meet our health goals.

  3. Thanks, Adrian — the issues you’re highlighting are of critical importance!

  4. The key point, as Lygeia says: “It’s up to you to decide which apps work for you.”.

    That means it’s not up to Apple, or Aetna, or even your employer. Will these three would-be platforms for my wellness really be able to keep their interests and perspectives out of my device and its apps? Will I really be able to take my apps from anywhere in the world, from any community of interest, from an open source project? Will I be able to keep my apps when I switch employers or health plans? Will CARIN Alliance and other secretive trust brokers insert themselves into the app ecosystem in order to “protect” the various brands commercial interest?

    From a human dignity perspective, as we get jacked-in to the Matrix with the help of our corporations, the questions above become paramount. Looking forward to your Part 2, Lygeia.

  5. Can’t make any money from self discipline.

    What will really work will be to tax bad habits and use that money for health care. Tax sugar, fat, calories, stop subsidizing corn and meat, subsidize fresh fruits and vegetables. This will produce a cultural change. Not some app.

  6. “which includes digital nudges–to help me overcome those pressures and do what’s healthiest in the long term.”

    Does the app include an electric shock when you reach for the donuts?

  7. Peter — kudos to you for maintaining your health well! While many of us know intellectually what we “should” do, it’s also hard (at least for me) to do it consistently despite the other pressures in my life, including advertising and social norms reinforcing a less-than-healthy diet, an office-based (too sedentary) model of employment, and relentless time pressure from both professional and personal sources. Many of us also face significant economic challenges. I’ll take all the help I can get from my environment–which includes digital nudges–to help me overcome those pressures and do what’s healthiest in the long term. Bring it on, Apple, Aetna, and anyone else who can make progress in achieving the holy grail of behavior change to improve health!

  8. I would love to see easier ways to coordinate care among multiple providers, the patient, and part of the patient’s self-determined “care team” of family members, friends, other kinds of professionals (e.g. personal trainer, alternative medicine provider) etc.!

  9. Totally agree, Steve. Just when is that tipping point? I’ve been squinting into the future to see it for quite some time… it’s getting closer, but we’re not there yet!

  10. Somehow I don’t need an “app” to tell me to eat fresh, not processed or fast food, stay away from sugar and high calories, exercise regularly.

    I wonder, at 67, not needing any “miracle” drugs, if that’s the reason. Please Apple, lead me to the promised land of a devise driven life.

  11. I join Steven and add one favorite theme. The importance of developing a notebook driven data process that would intuitively update, appropriately, a Comprehensive Care Plan with any ‘patient encounter,’ as edited by an identified Primary Physician Team.

  12. What fun, Lygeia! I look forward to more info as this unfolds. As we all know, the potential remains largely untapped for tech tools and ‘killer apps” to engage consumers in better managing their health and care. But it’s only a mater of time…..