Wearable tracking devices alone won't drive health behavior change, according to researchers
New Year's weight loss resolutions are in full swing, but despite all the hype about the latest wearable tracking devices, there's little evidence that this technology alone can change behavior and improve health for those that need it most, according to a new online-first viewpoint piece in JAMA. The paper, written by researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine, the Penn Medicine Center for Health Care Innovation, and the LDI Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics at the University of Pennsylvania, points out that even though several large technology companies are entering this expanding market, there may be a disconnect between the assumed benefits and actual outcomes.
"The notion is that by recording and reporting information about behaviors such as physical activity or sleep patterns, these devices can educate and motivate individuals toward better habits and better health," wrote authors Mitesh S. Patel, MD, MBA, MS, David A. Asch, MD, MBA, and Kevin G. Volpp, MD, PhD, all of whom are faculty at Penn and attending physicians at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center. "The gap between recording information and changing behavior is substantial, however, and while these devices are increasing in popularity, little evidence suggests that they are bridging the gap."
Instead, the authors suggest that applying behavioral economics concepts—such as lotteries or telling individuals what they would have won had they achieved a goal—could help achieve behavioral change. "Building new habits may be best facilitated by presenting frequent feedback… and by using a trigger that captures the individual's attention at those moments when he or she is most likely to take action."
The authors believe that there are four challenges that need to be addressed for wearable devices—available as bracelets, watches and even necklaces from high-end designers—to effectively promote health behavior change. First, a person must be motivated enough to want a device and be able to afford it. Second, once a device is acquired, a person must remember to wear it and occasionally recharge it. Third, the device must be able to accurately track its targeted behavior. And fourth, the information must be presented back to the user (using a feedback loop) in a way that can be understood, that motivates action, and that sustains the motivation towards improved health.
"Although wearable devices have the potential to facilitate health behavior change, this change may not be driven by these devices alone," wrote the authors. "Ultimately, it's the engagement strategies—the combinations of individual encouragement, social competition and collaboration, and effective feedback loops—that connect with human behavior."