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The Dartmouth
April 14, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Shah: 10,000 or Else?

Life insurance premiums should not depend upon fitness tracking.

Wearable technology is expected to be one of 2019’s biggest fitness trends. Many major companies and institutions are interested in promoting innovation in these areas, such as universities across the country. For instance, Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma requires students to purchase a Fitbit and walk at least 10,000 steps a day for a letter grade. As of September 2018 the insurance company John Hancock now provides discounted premiums to individuals enrolled in their Vitality life insurance program who use activity trackers and opt to report this data to the company. Individuals in the program automatically receive 20 to 40 percent discounts on these wearable fitness devices. While linking fitness to one’s health is a positive goal, however, insurance companies should not have access to fitness data because of data errors, privacy concerns and the negative impact of fitness trackers.

A Fitbit measures fitness activity such as one’s steps, heart rate and sleep patterns. While the Fitbit tends to count one’s steps accurately, the accuracy of other measurements, such as energy expenditure and calories burned, can vary significantly. This is mainly because the measurements are dependent on many arbitrary factors, such as where one places the Fitbit on their wrist and the type of exercise they are engaging in. According to Fitbit’s website, if users are engaging in exercise where they bend their wrist, the heart-rate signal can be inaccurate. Additionally, calories burned while at rest or exercising vary from individual to individual, meaning that Fitbit’s generalized calorie counts may not accurately reflect one’s expenditure. Thus, if individuals receive valuable rewards like insurance discounts based on factors related to physical activity, any inaccuracy in the measurements could bias the awards or judgments made by companies or universities thereafter.

Insurance companies having access to personal health information such as physical activity data also raises significant privacy concerns. When registering an activity tracker, one makes an account including information such as one’s name, age and sex. Certain Fitbits also have the ability to track users’ location. Insurance companies could potentially sell or share this data with third parties, such as companies that run location-based ads. For instance, in 2017, the United Kingdom’s National Health Service sold hospital data to the Institute of Faculty of Actuaries to better calculate insurance costs. However, it was then found that patients’ data could still be easily identified as information about gender, age, medical history and more was included. The more data provided, such as financial account information, the easier it is to identify the individual and a higher likelihood there is for concerns such as identity theft. Health information, if leaked, can impact employment prospects. In 2016, 450 healthcare data breaches involved the data of 27 million individuals. With a rise in breaches, individuals may be less willing to share their data with their health care providers, potentially decreasing trust in the patient-provider relationship.

Fitness trackers can also have an inconclusive impact on their users’ physical and mental health. A University of Birmingham study of youth in the United Kingdom found that users reported fitness trackers as a motivator to exercise and activity initially, but deemed them demotivating after the first four to five weeks. With goals such as 10,000 steps, fitness trackers can make physical activity seem regimented and demotivate individuals if they aren’t able to reach those goals daily. Individuals may also develop concerns about dependence on the technology. Additionally, preset goals such as 10,000 steps per day may not be evidence of a healthy lifestyle; for instance, an individual can achieve 10,000 steps through different intensities of exercise, where a higher intensity is associated with greater health benefits, which trackers such as Fitbits do not measure.

It has been four months since John Hancock started rewarding insurance policyholders for being physically active. Though the policy is still in its infancy, the company found that policyholders who used either an Apple Watch or Fitbit had 34 percent higher activity levels than policyholders who used neither. However, the privacy concerns associated with insurance companies having access to wearable technology data are significant and important to consider. Additional significant concerns include the inaccuracy of measurements by these devices and their inconclusive impact on individuals’ physical and mental health. Ultimately, the efficacy of the policy depends on how the insurance company uses fitness data: for instance, whether it will charge consumers more on less on their ability to afford a tracker and their fitness data from the tracker.