Wearable Tech's Dilemma: Too Much Data, Not Enough Insight

Credit:aaron pareki via Flickr

Analysts say as many as 130 million wearable tech devices will be sold by 2018. They promise to improve health, fitness and wellness. To have that impact, though, wearable tech must go beyond telling people things they already know.

When people learn that I run marathons in addition to covering healthcare IT, it doesn't take long for them to ask, "Where's your fitness tracker?"

It's a legitimate question. By all accounts, wearable tech is about to explode. Juniper Research expects 130 million devices to ship by 2018. IDC says it'll be closer to 120 million units, in part because most of the activity won't take place until 2016. Clearly, wearable tech is no gimmick.

By all accounts, it's a good thing, too. Generally speaking, the more people know about their own health and wellness, as measured by a device they often forget they're wearing, the better their chances of improving their health and wellness. Over time, this means fewer trips to the doctor, lower medical bills and, if all goes well, improved quality of life.

Today's Wearable Tech Complementary, Not Standalone

That said, I tend to disappoint people by pointing out that I don't wear a fitness tracker. Inevitably, they ask why.

Admittedly, it would make sense. Would my life be a little easier if a device automatically uploaded the time, distance, pace and per-mile breakdown of my runs to a Web service or the cloud? Wouldn't that be easier than writing the information my watch collects on a sticky note so I remember it when I plug it into dailymile?

Of course. However, I already own a GPS-enabled watch. Most runners do. (I've no hard evidence, but I have to look pretty hard to find someone toeing the line at a road race who isn't wearing a watch.) Most runners also run their watches into the ground, getting a new device only when the old one finally calls it quits. (Hey, when you also have to spring for shoes, clothes, race registrations, protein shakes and a bright yellow bib so cars can see you in the dark, you pay attention to the bottom line.)

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Today's fitness trackers could complement my watch, measuring my heart rate and level of dehydration during a run as well as monitoring my sleep patterns so I do more than just "listen to my body" when I take an unplanned rest day.

The operative word there, though, is complement. No fitness tracker will replace my watch outright – not unless it can display my pace, distance and elapsed time all at once, at a casual glance when there's sweat and sunscreen in my eyes, and do so for under $100. (Suffice to say the watches that do that and track various vital signs don't do so for under $100, either.)

Health and Wellness Is More Than Numbers

There's another factor at play here. Fitness trackers and apps typically target those who need motivation – a badge for hitting mileage goals, a thumbs-up for eating right, a community of like-minded people who want to improve their health and, above all, a bit of guidance along the way.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. The Couch-to-5K Running Plan and its associated mobile app, for example, have helped thousands of people successfully run their first 3.1-mile race. Few stop at one race. Many go on to discover, as I have, that running makes you a better person and introduces you to some amazing people.

Such plans, and their associated apps, thrive on data. Again, there's nothing wrong with that. It's just not a universal motivator.

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Yes, I run for time – to hit the goal pace on my training plan, to beat my personal best on race day and, in a sense, to slow down the inexorable march of time. I log my times, I think about my times and I train to improve my times.

I have other motives, though. I run to clear my head, to think and to challenge myself. Some of my proudest moments in the last few months weren't races but, rather, the days I braved the Polar Vortex, donning four shirts and two pairs of gloves for a 20-minute run in subzero wind chill just because I could. That can't be measured. (In fact, it couldn't be measured; my old watch, a relic I bought for $7 the day before my first marathon in 2001, froze on one of those cold January days.)

Data is important, but it can't – and shouldn't – define who we are.

Wearable Tech Can't Tell Us What We Don't Already Know

So what will get me to wear a fitness tracker? Simply put, I need a reason. So far, I haven't found a compelling one. (Neither, it seems, have the one-third of Americans abandoning wearables within six months of buying them.)

Some companies use fitness trackers for employee wellness, but those programs (rightfully) tend to target those who need that extra bit of motivation, not crazy people like me who willingly run in the cold, the heat and the rain. Plus, wellness programs can backfire if, say, they make it a little too obvious that they target employees who need to lose weight.

Health insurers are getting in on the action, too, partnering with wearable tech firms, wellness startups and other companies to provide a whole host of incentives to customers who link apps and devices to their insurance plans. Again, these (rightfully) target those who need a nudge, not people who already take the stairs and avoid the grocery store's middle aisles.

Healthcare providers have been slow on the uptake. There's much promise in sharing patient-generated health and wellness data with physicians, but it's mostly promise. Few patients have the time, resources or know-how to collect data, and few physicians have the time, resources or know-how to sift through the data that patients collect. Emerging consumer health apps may help, but they're just as likely to confuse.

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Data is only as valuable as what you can do with it. A fitness tracker churning out all kinds of health, wellness and fitness data provides value only if my insurer, my doctors and (eventually) my caregiver can see that data and alter my short- and long-term care plan. As a Rock Health presentation on wearable tech points out, many of today's devices either serve a single purpose or, in the words of Proteus Chief Product Officer David O'Reilly, "go after things that are obvious."

I don't need wearable tech to tell me I run a lot, sweat a lot and eat a lot. That's obvious. I need wearable tech to tell me what I don't know – and to do it without being uncomfortable, intrusive or expensive.

Until that happens, I'll stick with my watch.

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