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Wearables for wellness fit right in

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Many employers are embedding wearable fitness-tracking devices in workplace wellness programs.

From simple step counters to sophisticated sensors that capture activity levels, heart rate and sleep patterns, wearables have become a popular tool to promote healthy lifestyles.

Jessica Grossmeier, vice president of research at the Health Enhancement Research Organization in Edina, Minnesota, said employers that integrate wearables into robust, year-round wellness programs are seeing strong employee participation.

“They're saying, "Oh my goodness, this really gave our (wellness) program lift,'” said Ms. Grossmeier, who also is CEO of Verity Analytics.

HERO's 2015 Wearables in Wellness survey found that 46% of employers offer some type of fitness tracker as part of a wellness program. Of those, half or more said they offer the devices to increase users' physical activity (94%) and healthy habits (62%), boost employee engagement (77%), and add fun and excitement to wellness initiatives (58%).

Wearable device manufacturers such as Fitbit Inc. and Garmin Ltd. are part of the employer wellness space, but other players also are entering the market.

In March, insurance giant UnitedHealthcare Inc. and technology partner Qualcomm Inc. unveiled UnitedHealthcare Motion, a wellness program built around custom-designed fitness trackers. Employees enrolled in the insurer's high-deductible health plans can earn up to $1,460 annual financial incentives for meeting daily walking goals as tracked by the device. The data is sent to an app via a platform that complies with federal patient privacy and security requirements. A smartphone app that syncs with the fitness tracker will allow iPhone and Android users to monitor their walking results and financial incentives.

A spokesman for UnitedHealthcare said the program is available to businesses with 10 to 500 employees and that the insurer plans to expand it to larger employers later this year.

Wellness programs are all about providing personalized support for employees and their families in their well-being journeys, and “wearables feed into that,” said LuAnn Heinen, vice president of workforce well-being, productivity and human capital at the National Business Group on Health in Washington. “They make health fun and social.”

Some employers provide wearables free of charge. Others subsidize them or invite employees to bring their own fitness device.

Atlanta's Emory University and Emory Healthcare hospital and clinic system piloted a Fitbit tracker at five sites in 2014 during an eight-week Move More Challenge. Employees received a basic version of the device for free with the option to “buy up” to a more sophisticated model, said Michael Staufacker, director of health management at Emory University.

The test, however, found a big hole: 14% of employees who got the freebie never bothered to sync it to the manufacturer's website or mobile app. In contrast, just 4% of employees who upgraded never used the device.

With the full rollout last year, Emory offered eligible employees a $30 subsidy to buy the Fitbit of his or her choice, with the employee paying the rest of the cost.

“Having a little skin in the game ... seems to have an influence,” Mr. Staufacker said.

Most employers hire an outside party to collect and manage personal health information generated by the wearable devices, experts say. The information provided to employers does not identify employees.

But employers also must be aware of what information the devices collect, who has access to it and how it may be used, said Joseph Lazzarotti, a principal in the Morristown, New Jersey, office of Jackson Lewis P.C. and co-lead of the law firm's privacy, e-communication and data security practice. Without proper program designs and safeguards, employers could inadvertently breach various data protection and nondiscrimination laws, he said.

“These (wellness) programs sit at the crossroads of a lot of different laws,” and wearables add another layer of potential risk, he said.

Employers may tie biometric data from wearables to incentives in wellness programs, but the programs must comply with new U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rules that limit the incentives employees and spouses receive and ensure data is kept confidential, Mr. Lazzarotti said.

Employers “still have to go through the hoops” to ensure that wellness programs comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, he said.

Employers should also ask device manufacturers whether they have appropriate protections in place to ensure that the data is secure, he added. Fitbit Inc., for instance, announced last September that its corporate wellness offering complies with privacy and security rules under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

Employers and wearable providers have another ongoing challenge: how to sustain employee interest when the novelty of logging daily steps wears off.

“People engage with a device, and then they kind of hit a wall because they're not learning anything new,” said Rhett Woods, chief creative officer in the San Francisco office of Rally Health Inc., a digital health firm whose insurer clients run wellness programs for employers.

Last September, Target Corp. doled out free and discounted Fitbits to its 335,000 U.S. employees and issued fitness team challenges. It put up $1 million to donate to the winning team's favorite charity as an incentive.

Team-based challenges “create a lot more stickiness” because everyone's in it together, said Mr. Woods. “If there's no defined activity around the wearable device, then it's up to everybody to figure out how it fits into their life.”

While some employees may be more engaged in minding their health, experts say it's too soon to say whether wearables improve wellness program outcomes.

Emory, for one, is looking to future challenges. Under consideration: a $30 Fitbit subsidy for spouses or partners this year.

For 2017, it is weighing credits to participants' health savings accounts, health plan deductibles or coinsurance, Mr. Staufacker said.