Wellness activity According to arecent study, “Wearables are morphing from their original fitnessand wellness label into a tracker that can be clinically meaningfulto patients—and perhaps even providers.” (Photo:Shutterstock)

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The use of digital tools for health care continued to grow in2018, and also saw a change of direction, as people increasinglyused wearable devices to manage health conditions,as opposed to tracking fitness. The report also explored consumercommitment to digital health devices and the issue of data privacy.

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The findings are part of a new report by Rock Health, a digital healthventure fund that has surveyed consumers about digital health since2015. The new report said use of digital health tools grew again in2018, after a pause in growth in 2017. The study found that 89percent of respondents used at least one digital health tool lastyear.

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Related: Fitbit setting its focus on employer health andwellness plans

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Tools included in the survey were telemedicine video visits, wearable devices,mobile tracking devices, online provider reviews, and online healthinformation. Since 2015, telemedicine use has grown from 7 percentof respondents to 34 percent. Use of wearables went from 13 percentto 33 percent. Mobile tracking use went from 18 percent to 28percent. Online provider reviews grew 14 percent, from 50 percentto 64 percent. And the most commonly used tool, finding onlinehealth information, grew from 71 percent to 80 percent ofrespondents.

A shift from fitness to health management

The study said one of its biggest findings was a dramatic changein how consumers used digital tools—respondents said they wereusing such tools more to manage their health and less to motivatefitness.

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“Monitoring physical activity remains the top reason forwearable use, but only 44 percent of wearable owners cited physicalactivity as the top reason for their wearable use, down from 54percent in 2017,” the report said. “This 10 percent decrease ismirrored by a 10 percent increase in respondents using a wearableto manage a diagnosis. Wearables are morphing from their originalfitness and wellness label into a tracker that can be clinicallymeaningful to patients—and perhaps even providers.” The study alsonoted a jump in the use of devices to help people sleep better:from 27 percent in 2017 to 31 percent in 2018.

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Another finding was a surge in adoption rates fortelemedicine—although most of that was among urban consumers.Telemedicine is often seen as a way to bring more care options torural areas, but the survey found more use of this technology inurban areas. “Adoption of at least one form of telemedicine was 67percent for rural residents and 80 percent for urban residents,”the report said.

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In fact, the report said that older rural consumers are beingleft behind in this area of technology. Part of the problem may betied to marketing the technology, authors said. “Only 17 percent ofrural respondents aged 35-plus utilized video telemedicine in2018—19 percentage points less than rural respondents aged 18 to34, and 29 percentage points less than urban residents aged35-plus,” they wrote. “Perhaps this outcome isn't toosurprising—just a quick glance at the marketing of well-funded,telemedicine-based startups makes it clear that they are targetingtech-savvy millennials.”

Unique challenges to adoption—and commitment

The study also acknowledged it hasn't been all smooth sailingfor the digital health industry. “Discontinued wearable use stillplagues the sector—many a step tracker sits at the bottom of adrawer,” the study said. “In 2018, 39 percent of wearable usersstopped using their wearable, marking a substantial jump from 27percent in 2017. This is significant—the number of respondents whostopped using a wearable in 2018 was larger than the increase inrespondents who adopted a wearable from 2017 to 2018.”

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However, the report's authors added, the trend toward clinicaluse rather than just as a way to track fitness, should make thewearable market more “sticky.” The use of devices for managinghealth problems has value for providers and will give consumersmore incentive to continue use, they said.

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And interest from innovative companies and investors continuesto be high, the report notes, pointing to a joint venture between Apple and Aetna inencouraging healthy behaviors among consumers who buy an Applewatch.

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The study also tracked a change in how consumers feel aboutsharing health care data. Consumers may be responding to headlinesabout large corporations being victims of data breaches in recentyears—the study found a nearly 9 percent drop in respondentswilling to share data with health care entities such as providers,researchers, and insurance companies. Physicians still scoredhighly (72 percent of respondents were willing to share data), butof note for this study, tech companies came in last, with only 11percent of respondents willing to share data with thosecompanies.

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