Wearables at work and privacy concerns


BHI’s senior vice president of product management and business development, Mary Henderson, is quoted in a recent BBC Worklife article on the rise of employee health tracking via wearable devices. BBC’s full Q&A with Henderson and Sanket Shah, BHI’s assistant vice president for account management, is featured below.

BBC Worklife: We’ve seen interest from various corporations (particularly in the U.S.) in employee health tracking in the past few years, for example, BP with their Fitbits as part of their corporate wellness program, but some of the new devices emerging on the market (such as LifeSignals’ patch) can record far more information such as skin temperature, respiratory rate, posture, and blood pressure, at medical-grade quality. What are the main ways in which you see employers utilizing this kind of data going forward in the coming years?

Henderson: Wearables like the FitBit or Apple Watch are used a lot in employee wellness programs in the U.S., which include incentives like cost reduction in health premiums to get employees more active. Often it is a team effort, where you gather points as a group for the number of steps taken for a certain division or collective pounds lost by a sales region. When wearables first came on the market it was with the promise that we were going to see this huge impact on our knowledge base about disease and the effect of being more fit on people’s understanding of their own health.  Unfortunately, the data does not support that hypothesis. Despite the rise in the use of wearables, rates of Type 2 diabetes, and elevated Body Mass Index haven’t seen any notable declines in commercially insured populations in the U.S.

Shah: There are a lot of studies out there that the more engaged employees are invested in their own health, the more energy and productivity they bring to the job place. But one of the biggest hurdles from the analytics perspective is that there are no uniform standards for collecting this data and reporting it. It’s all over the map and there’s not yet a consistent mechanism that can be used to aggregate data and reliably use it in wide-scale, privacy-protected analytic scenarios that could prove or refute these hypotheses.

BBC Worklife: With the increased amounts of data being recorded by this new generation of wearables, will it make it possible for healthcare analytics companies like Blue Health who work with the corporate world, to garner more information through AI algorithms? I read an interesting story which said that HR teams are already considering how to add further value by helping employees interpret and act on the data generated by wearables. For example, if the current activity levels of employees could be assessed in combination with other health factors, such as their propensity to any hereditary conditions, employers could help assess their likelihood of ill health later in life. Do you see this kind of thing increasingly happening? 

Within the AI arena, we often talk about ensemble modeling, which pulls together streams of different data into different models. As data inputs increase, we then can see which elements contribute to more accurate predictions, such as which factors and or data elements best predict things like the ‘likelihood of ill health later in life.’

While information from wearables could certainly become a data input into future healthcare-related predictive ensemble models, we still need greater uniformity in collecting and reporting on wearable data before we will know what value they can actually contribute to healthcare predictions.

BBC Worklife: Could there be some potential risks of employers being able to utilize data to conduct these kinds of analyses on their employees?

Henderson: The more intrusive these devices get and the more clinical data they convey, the more risk employers will have to consider and evaluate. For example, if you are monitoring cardiac activity, and shared data indicates that someone has a serious problem, what can, or should the employer do about that situation? On the one hand, there is the potential for a disability claim and on the other hand, there is a litigation risk if the employer withholds that information. From what we see in the market, employers typically take two different paths when using wearable data as part of their population’s wellness initiatives. One path has directed employers to work with vendors or third-party players that directly collect wellness-related data and then directly work with employees to change their lifestyles. In this scenario, the employer would only ever have access to a population-level view of their overall workforce and the kinds of wellness interventions they are using or that the employer should consider offering. A second path has employers opting to work with companies that set up worksite healthcare clinics. Doctors or nurse practitioners would then be on point to receive relevant data and conduct any needed follow-ups or outreach. In following either path, the best practices dictate that an employer never sees any individual employee’s health-related information and they have ironclad data privacy policies.

Shah: While new wearables and remote monitoring devices are attracting new attention, we are still wrestling with age-old questions of data privacy and ethical use. Healthcare data privacy specifically presents evolving and highly complex questions. While we may all want the convenience of portable information and technology, the transmission and use of data collected by our smartphones, GPS-enabled apps, and/or fitness-related wearables must always be examined using ethical, safety, and economic lenses. What can and cannot be used, who should and should not have access to which data, and what transparency rules need to be followed, are questions both the employer and employee must consider. There are huge risks on either side of the debate but there is also risk in not approaching the collection of information in a non-transparent manner.

BBC Worklife: Do you think COVID-19 will provide an impetus for making health tracking more prevalent across the business world, and also more accepted by employees? Have you heard of any recent new examples?

Shah: Without a doubt, COVID-19 has increased the use of wearables to better monitor and report on social distancing and contact tracing in a host of different situations.  For example, the National Football League is using a device that alerts individuals if you get within six feet of someone. Manufacturers, front-line healthcare workers, and various other industries that require person-to-person interaction are also using these same types of alerts. As companies work to bring their employees back to the office, there will likely be an increased demand for using wearable devices, corporate-issued phones, and/or laptops for similar purposes. In COVID-19 inspired data privacy debates, we will need to be conscious of balancing “big brother” like oversight with public health and other critical safety requirements.