Like many people recently, I have bought a Fitbit and am now motivated to reach 10,000 steps a day (which, ahem, is not the same as saying I will always attain that goal). However, I’m not the only one who might be interested in how many steps I take — my doctor and insurance company would surely appreciate knowing that as well.
In fact, all sorts of firms, including medical and actuarial companies and retail manufacturers, might be eager to shell out for such information, said S. Jay Olshansky, a professor of public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago and chief scientist at Lapetus Solutions. He contends that an emerging “health-data economy” could soon prove profitable for those who use wearable fitness trackers or other sensors, such as blood-sugar monitors.
In other words, there’s gold on them thar wrists.
“We’ve got this entire industry that is emerging of wearable sensors that is just exploding, and the potential here is huge,” Olshansky told me by phone.
The information collected by Fitbits and other wearable devices could become “extremely valuable,” he said. “And valuable in more than one way, not just in terms of helping you assess your own health risk and helping you to identify healthier lifestyles, or even your doctor to assess your own risk, but we actually think it has monetary value. That you’ll actually be able to sell access to your health data. Companies will be interested in paying you for it.”
For doctors, getting a year-long picture of a patient’s activity and vital signs would be a hugely beneficial supplement to the relative snapshot of an annual physical. Olshansky also offered examples of how wearable sensors could provide crucial information to commercial entities, such as mattress makers gleaning details of users’ sleep patterns, or a company such as Nike tapping into the weekly habits of thousands of runners.
“The advent of wearable sensors is creating a whole new type of health data at the individual level that is no longer a moment in time,” Olshansky said. “Now we’re talking about continuous data, that comes in 24/7 if you’re wearing these wearable sensors all the time, or at least during the course of the day while you’re wearing them.”
Lapetus describes itself as “dedicated to creating products and services that will revolutionize the prediction of life events.” (Olshansky said the company was inspired by a 2014 Washington Post story involving his work with facial recognition technology.) In a recent paper for the journal Computer, he and some colleagues demonstrated how a given user’s step count, correlated with his or her age, height, weight, walking speed and surface grade, could be used to determine calories burned, which then could be turned into a measure of mortality risk.
“Step counts uploaded daily from a wearable device can be converted into reliable long-term assessments of an individual’s health and longevity,” Olshansky and his team said in the paper. “Aggregating such data from millions of device users could lead to a gold standard for such metrics.”
The means used by actuarial firms to assess risk are “fairly crude,” the 62-year-old expert on aging told me. “It’s about 200-year-old technology that combines taking a vial of blood, and measuring your height and weight, and putting you into risk categories.” So the reams of personal information that wearable sensors provide could create far more accurate, not to mention easily updatable, assessments.
Olshansky posited that there would even be great value in giving sedentary people sensors to wear or compensating them for sharing data from their own devices. Some insurance firms are already doing that to encourage users to adopt healthier lifestyles, but companies that make products marketed to those suffering from the effects of obesity, for example, might simply want to get a better understanding of the issues their customers face.
Naturally, privacy concerns abound here, and Olshansky emphasized that he was “acutely sensitive to those issues.” He added: “We think that personal health data should be owned by the individual, not by any Big Brother. You should decide yourself whether or not you want to release that information to anyone.”
But, of course, plenty of details about people’s activities, such as spending habits and bill payments, are already being collected and turned into measures of risk. In their paper, the Lapetus team proposed the BLISS (Better Life and Income Scoring System) score, which would be “a more complete metric of an individual’s relative risk than the FICO score and other credit risk metrics,” because it would unite attributes such as net worth and education level with personal health data.
Olshansky pointed to retirement planning and said: “Critical to that whole process is estimating how long you’re going to live, how healthy you’re likely to be along the way and what your current financial status is. And linking them all together is something that has never been done before.”
In that scenario, people could use fitness trackers to raise their BLISS scores, or, in many cases, to lower their health-insurance premiums. Olshansky likened that process to programs, such as Progressive’s Snapshot, in which auto-insurance companies give customers devices to plug into their cars to measure their driving habits.
“Instead of sensing how well you’re driving your car,” he said, a wearable tracker “tells you how well you’re driving your body.”
At the moment, Olshansky said, many people are buying Fitbits and similar devices but quickly discarding them out of boredom with only “getting an emoji” for completing certain tasks. But if they were getting paid? That would be quite a step forward.