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Why Insurers Should Pay Healthy People To Exercise

March 13, 2016, 7:00 PM UTC
Financial health check or cost of healthcare
Photograph by Brian A. Jackson — Getty Images/iStockphoto

LAS VEGAS – The greatest, most game-changing product I saw earlier this month at the country’s largest health-tech event was a little black activity tracker perched on a small stand in a big booth.

In this time of cataclysmic change across the healthcare industry, that’s saying something. Borne out of a combination of regulatory mandate and practical necessity, healthcare is transforming from a business that treats the sick to one intent on keeping people healthy.

One of the first orders of business is to ease the crushing costs of care for hypertension, diabetes, asthma and other chronic conditions, which amount to 86% of the nation’s $3 trillion annual healthcare spend. So many of the tablets, wearables, connected meters and companion apps on the show floor at the Health Information and Management Systems Society show are designed to help monitor and care for those folks.

The non-descript little tracker, though, is the too-rare device developed in the true spirit of the healthcare system overhaul: that is, keeping healthy people healthy. It’s called Trio Motion, from UnitedHealthcare (UNH). The mammoth health insurance provider showed off the device in a section of Qualcomm’s booth at HIMSS. Technology from Qualcomm Life, a wholly-owned subsidiary, is responsible for securing communication between the device, the companion smartphone app and the cloud.

You can’t buy Trio Motion. The custom-designed device is free for employees at companies that UnitedHealthcare insures. Further, the companion wellness program, called Motion, is paying those employees for meeting daily activity goals. Up to $1,460 per person per year. Depending on the program, the funds might be designated to pay for healthcare. Or employees might just get a check.

The healthcare industry calls insurance companies “payers” – ironic for most of us, who tend to think of them more as collectors of our monthly premiums. And as far as I can tell, Motion is the first program from a major payer that actually pays members for a lifestyle choice other than not smoking.

That’s big, for several reasons. First, payers aren’t in the habit of losing money. Which means UnitedHealthcare believes that fewer claims from healthier members will outweigh the cost of the program. The health hazards of a sedentary lifestyle are well documented. Even so, the payback to UnitedHealthcare in this age of annual open enrollments seems shockingly quick.

Second, the Motion program is no doubt raising eyebrows throughout the $700 billion health insurance industry, which is just beginning to react to the healthcare transformation. I’ll be surprised if other payers don’t follow suit.

Finally, the Motion payout program gives all of us a practical guide for staying healthy by getting the most out of our fitness trackers. Specifically, the Motion program pays daily for meeting three distinct activity goals:

Frequency: $1.50 per day for taking six five-minute walks. During the walks, which must be at least an hour apart, participants must take a minimum of 300 steps. Motion pays the most for frequency, which you should take to mean that it’s not enough to hit the gym on the way to work if you’re going to spend the next nine hours sitting at your desk. Get up and walk around!

Intensity: $1.25 per day for 3,000 steps in 30 minutes. They don’t actually have to be steps. Swimming laps, for example, will get you paid.

Tenacity: $1.25 for a good old-fashioned total of 10,000 steps.

I’ve been using the Trio Motion for about a week now. Included is a wrist band and a belt clip, though I’ve been wearing it exclusively on my wrist.

In five days, I’ve amassed what amounts to $12.25 in e-Monopoly money. (UnitedHealthcare isn’t actually paying me.) I’ve had no trouble making my 10,000 steps each day. And I’ve missed the frequency goal just once. But I’ve yet to hit the intensity mark. I didn’t walk quite fast enough at HIMSS to reach it. At home, my pace is plenty quick on the elliptical. But I only do that for 20 minutes.

Trio Motion is a seemingly simple device. It only senses motion. There are plenty of trackers out there that track more. And plenty are more elegant and attractive.

I don’t think UnitedHealthcare is all that concerned with measuring step counts precisely. I’ve been wearing the Trio Motion and the Microsoft Band 2 side-by-side on my wrist all day. Thus far, Trio has logged 6,117 steps, versus 3,732 for the Band. I wore them both yesterday as well, only in reverse positions so that the Trio was closer to my hand. The counts were closer, though the Trio was still far higher: 13,171 steps versus 10,621 for the Band.

Mind you, we don’t know which tracker is more accurate. Only that they’re different. But I doubt it matters. I’ll bet the health benefits are apparent whether you take 200 or 300 steps during your five-minute walk. The important thing is that you take the five-minute walks.

Longer term, I’d expect the company to stop supplying watches, and certify commercially available activity trackers and smartwatches for the Motion program. That could be tricky – though obviously not due to step-count accuracy. Rather, the program depends on fraud-prevention algorithms to flag when participants attach Trio to the dog’s collar or a paint-mixing machine.

UnitedHealthCare has chosen to begin the Motion program with mid-sized companies (companies with 101-300 employees) in a dozen states. More than 100,000 people are wearing them already. Which sounds like a lot, until you consider UnitedHealthCare insures more than 46 million people.

Hopefully, smartwatch and fitness-band suppliers like Apple, Fitbit, Samsung will take a cue from Trio and add the frequency and intensity metrics to the step counts they already track.

In the meantime, let’s go take a walk.

Mike Feibus is principal analyst at FeibusTech, a Scottsdale, Ariz., market strategy and analysis firm focusing on mobile ecosystems and client technologies. Neither he or his firm are investors of UnitedHealthcare.