Cost, security concerns may slow Apple Watch’s role in workplace wellness

Apple’s new and very high-profile entry into the wearable wellness game might make it the must-have status symbol of 2015, but cost and data security issues may create challenges for Apple Watch in benefits programs.

Tuesday afternoon brought the full reveal of the long-anticipated Apple Watch, which will use data gathered by its electronic heart rate monitor, accelerometer and both GPS and wi-fi to track users’ activity and daily exercise regimen. How much of that data is collected and how it will be shared with wellness and health care providers remains a question. The new watch/phone/wearable hybrid is expected to debut on the market in early 2015.

Apple CEO Tim Cook says that while fashion and communication technologies are at the forefront in the new and revolutionary watch, the ability to track the quality and frequency of activity, as well as providing personalized encouragement to users, makes the Apple Watch a very different offering than existing wearables.

See also: Apple Watch: ‘Seminal event’ for employer wellness market

A starting price of nearly $350, and the requirement that the watch be synced with an iPhone for full data functions, means that the tool may be a little too costly for wide deployment as part of employer wellness offerings.

Hiran Perera, CEO of Walkingspree, a wellness vendor which uses its own $45 wearables or other lower-priced tools such as the Fitbit as part of its wellness services, says Apple is to be commended for its technology, but wonders if the relatively high price of the watch will make it attractive to employers.

“For third parties like [us], we hope that we finally have a neutral platform to connect all of the various devices and mobile apps, without having to negotiate with each party to get connected,” he says. However, he adds, “we do not expect to see a huge demand immediately from our corporate clients to offer Apple Watch as a wellness solution simply because of the $349 cost factor.”

Alan Kohll, CEO and founder of Total Wellness, a wellness program vendor, agrees that the price may be prohibitive for deeper saturation, as innovative as the Apple Watch may be.

“It’s like a Jeep versus a $500,000 sports car … you get the Lamborghini and you’re going to have all of those features the average person is not going to use or pay for,” he says. “The corporate wellness market is not going to use all those features, and we’re definitely not going to pay that much for all those features at this point.”

More importantly, while Apple’s Cook says that the new device will share data through its health applications to third-party health and fitness providers, Perera notes that the security of that biometric data remains a major concern, especially when used in a workplace program.

“Employees may also fear that Big Brother is watching them when it comes to connecting all the biometric data into an employer-controlled website,” he says. In his company’s offerings, “Walkingspree is capable of pulling only the non-HIPAA-protected data, such as step data and the number of minutes of standing, into corporate challenges.”

See also: Success of consumer based watch tied to health care stakeholders

From his vantage point, Eric B. Meyer, a partner at Dilworth Paxson, notes that he does not see any substantial privacy roadblocks for employers at the present time due to the minuscule amount of information currently available. 

“This is something that still at its early stages,” Meyer says, “but theoretically, there could be health information that could be covered under HIPPA that employers would want to get a release from employees for, if they are going to allow or want these wearables to function within the scope of a wellness program.”   

Kohll says he believes the market has not quite found its be-all solution in the new Apple product.

“For a while there won’t be one dominant device, there’s no standard,” he notes. “[Apple Watch] will just be another device out there that can provide rich data. … they’ve created a platform that maybe a lot can happen with and most likely will happen. But it’s not going to happen overnight and it’s not going to be widely available until next year.”

Fitbit, Nike+ FuelBand, Jawbone UP and similar fitness trackers have all received a warm welcome in recent years, and each provides variations of different wellness tracking information.

This year, it’s expected that about 42 million wearable wireless sports, fitness and wellness devices are expected to be shipped worldwide, according to research from technology market-intelligence company ABI Research.

In January 2013, Principal Financial’s Well-Being Index survey found that 45% of employees said an employer-sponsored wellness program would encourage them to stay in their current employment situation, up from 40% in 2011. In Addition, Fitbit notes National Business Group on Health statistics say companies with a worksite wellness program saw an 8% jump in employee productivity.

Additional reporting by Andrea Davis, Michael Giardina and Nick Otto.  

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