COVID-19 shines spotlight on life-saving potential of wearable health tech

One of the greatest goals of marketers has always been to change consumer behaviour, whether for selfish commercial reasons or to help address society’s ills. Now a behavioural change of potentially seismic proportions is underway.

The coronavirus pandemic has shone a spotlight on the life-saving potential of wearable health technology, with Apple Watch and WearOS already able to track and alert the wearer that they are fighting some of the coronavirus symptoms. Both Fitbit and app maker Cardiogram havs discovered a distinct correlation between elevated resting heart rate and influenza-like illness rates, according to IDG's MacWorld. This is why Cardiogram pushed through an update to its Apple Watch and WearOS apps in mid-March, adding a new statistic that showed average beats per minute during sleep.

As a result, we could soon begin to witness a striking behavioural change in the way people view personal health and well-being. After all, wearable fitness devices such as Fitbit already know you are getting sick before you do and we have only scratched the surface of what is possible. At present, wearable tech can monitor your physical activity, heart rate, blood pressure and the oxygen levels in your blood, with the primary purpose of promoting healthier behaviour and decreasing the risk of chronic diseases. However, that is just the beginning, with usage likely to increase dramatically in the coming years.

The arrival of 5G, with its lag-free high bandwidth connectivity, will transform personal healthcare. Not only will it revolutionise data management, enable real-time notifications and provide richer data and more significant insights into our health, but the scalable detection of viruses such as COVID-19 will become far easier (privacy issues permitting). Advanced sensor technology and more intelligent algorithms will only heighten what is possible.

What does this mean for brands? Well, for those operating in the healthcare, sports and fitness sectors, the answer is obvious. Access to real-time, personalised data will enable companies to understand consumer behaviour like never before. It will also facilitate greater engagement and help solve real-world customer needs and problems.

Moreover, as diet is integrated into wearables on a more comprehensive level, new data touchpoints will be added, delivering a deeper dive than ever into consumers’ behaviours and preferences.

That, in turn, will help brands build better experiences. All of which applies to food producers and apparel brands just as much as it does to tech and fitness.

For others, the repercussions of a shift in behaviour are harder to discern. Sure, insurers such as John Hancock in the US already only sell interactive life insurance policies that track fitness and health data through wearable devices, but what of companies whose links to health and well-being are tenuous? Advertising within wearables, especially when matched with an individual’s emotions and dispositions, is an option. Last year, the Journal of Advertising Research stated that the ability to understand an individual’s emotions represents a significant advance for marketers, “paving the way for interactive, personalised advertising systems that allow for temporal segmentation and targeting”.

This throws up all kinds of privacy concerns, but perhaps the most significant potential lies not in consumer engagement, but in company culture. COVID-19 has thrown employee well-being into the limelight, and there is no reason why it should not remain there with the help of wearable tech. PwC has estimated that more than 75 million wearables will have been introduced into the workplace globally by the end of this year and research by Business Insider Intelligence has indicated that healthier corporate cultures reduce employee turnover. T

Throw in higher productivity, and positive sentiment and the arguments against a more tech-inspired company wellness strategy become redundant.

Of course, the likelihood is that COVID-19 will change nothing. That no lessons will be learnt and people will simply revert to form. However, there is hope that true behavioural change is underway. Even without COVID-19, the use of wearable tech had more than tripled in the past four years, and according to research firm Gartner global spending on wearables was set to reach US$52 billion this year.

Nevertheless, changing health-related behaviour and sustaining it has always been a difficult nut to crack. In the past it has required a concerted effort from multiple stakeholders and, depending on the nature of the change desired, brands, charities, NGOs and governments were all required to act in some form of unison. Traditionally those changes related to public health – smoking, drink driving, substance use, sexual health – and necessitated a coordinated approach across multiple platforms and multiple organisations. The same applies today as we battle COVID-19 and look towards a healthier and fitter world.

Even if the shift towards personal health has been accelerated by COVID-19, it will take public and private cooperation to make the most of the wealth of data now available. Advertising may have been the most visible component of efforts to change behaviour in the past, but behind it stood law enforcement, education and strong government policy. The same applies now. No one can do this alone and making meaningful use of consumer-generated data will be the real challenge.

The writer is Huma Qureshi, chief communications officer, Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa, Grey Group.