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Insurer Will Subsidize Apple Watch Purchases to Promote Health

Apple won a big backer from the world of healthcare, insurance giant Aetna, for its fitness-focused smartwatch strategy. In a first, Aetna said it planned to subsidize Apple Watch purchases by its customers to use the device with new apps to promote wellness and manage care and use of medications.

Aetna, which provides U.S. health coverage for 23 million people, will start by offering Apple Watches to some of its largest customers beginning this fall. Aetna said it would subsidize an unspecified portion of the cost of the almost $400 devices and let customers cover the remainder via monthly payroll deductions.

The associated apps, which will also run on iPhones and iPads, will remind people when to take their medications and when to order refills, guide users through health events like being prescribed a new medication, as well as provide insurance information. The apps will also be able to link to the Apple Wallet app for making payments, Aetna said.

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The program got high level endorsements from within Aetna. “We look forward to using these tools to improve health outcomes and help more people achieve more healthy days,” Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini said in a statement. The company will also give a free watch to any of its 50,000 employees that participate in the company’s own wellness plans.

Apple’s wearable has struggled somewhat to find a market since it hit the market last April. This year, Apple revamped the device and its software to offer more fitness and health tracking features. That set the Apple device up as a more direct competitor to Fitbit, which has been the leading seller of health and fitness focused smart devices. And Fitbit has also been talking up the opportunity of integrating into large-scale corporate health and wellness programs, leading to a possible clash with Apple over the fitness market.

“These kinds of devices have the potential to really affect how people make decisions to lead healthier lives,” says Carnegie Mellon assistant professor Vibhanshu Abhishek, citing some of the same functions that Aetna says it will incorporate. As the devices get more accurate and add more sophisticated sensors, they will become even more valuable in healthcare, predicting heart attacks days beforehand, for example.

“You could help the doctor diagnose your real issues, capture a very accurate picture of what you’re really going through,” he said.

Apple Watch: Examining the Long-Term Health Implications

Some customers may be reticent to sign up for apps that report back to a health insurer, however. Aetna is “committed to strict adherence to our existing privacy policies and following all appropriate regulations regarding the protection of personal health information,” a spokesman said.

There has also been news recently that fitness tracking did not have the desired impact on health. In a study published last week in JAMA, the journal of the American Medical Association, people using a crude fitness tracker to measure the amount that they exercised lost less weight over two years than a similar group of people who self-reported their exercise.

That’s just one study and it may not have been set up the way most wellness programs work. A key use of the tracker is to give users incentives to reach exercise goals, which doesn’t seem to have been part of the JAMA study. Aetna aNd its own employees have already shown themselves eager to use fitness tracking devices as part of its internal corporate wellness programs.