The Bear Case for Wearable Health Technology

By Markets Fool.com

Wearable technology has the potential to change how we monitor our personal health and take our medication, and it could effectively assist the elderly living alone. Already, smartwatches and fitness bands help us track our workouts, Internet-connected insulin pumps keep track of when medicine is dispensed, and wearable devices can inform our loved ones if we've missed our daily dose of medicine.

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All of these things have the potential to make our lives better, and many of them will -- but there are also a few unintended drawbacks to wearable tech.

Rising health premiums
Last week, David Plans -- co-founder of a startup called Biobeats that specializes in syncing music with a user's heart rate -- warned that some companies want to tap into wearable tech data for "sinister reasons."Plans' latest wearable device is designed to ease anxiety in patients by playing calming music when a person's heart rate and breathing increases.

Data from fitness trackers could be used by insurance companies to adjust premiums. Image source: Fitbit.

The device is being tested in UK hospitals right now, but Plans warned that some insurance companies are looking to use it for their own gain. "Some of the insurance providers we work with want to calculate insurance premiums in real-time," he said.

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Indeed, insurance companies are already diving into wearables. According to a recent survey by Accenture, 63% of insurance executives think there will be widespread wearable tech adoption in the insurance industry over the next two years, and 31% say they're already using the tech for their employees, partners and customers.

While it's hard to know whether or not insurance companies will pursue real-time premium calculations or not, the idea that some are already considering it is enough to spur serious privacy concerns, and raises questions about who owns the data that wearable devices generate.

Intentional device tampering
Back in October, the director of emergency preparedness at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Suzanne Schwartz, made the ominous (and obvious) statement, "There is no such thing as a threat-proof medical device." Her words were paired with the release of a set of FDA guidelines for companies to follow when creating wearable medical devices, and they hint at the growing need for high-tech medical device protection.

A report released in March by Intel Security said that security researchers have already figured out easy and cheap ways to wirelessly hack insulin pumps to turn them off and on, or even administer overdoses of medication. And the Department of Homeland Security is already investigating two dozen cases of cybersecurity problems in medical devices, including ones where people could administer deadly jolts of electricity through heart pacemakers.

Before we all start panicking about this, it's worth mentioning here that these instances of tampering are rare. But as the number of implanted and wearable health technologies increases, the need to protect them will only grow.

Source: Apple.

Privacy problems
Much more probable than a medical device being maliciously tampered with is the always-present threat of identity theft.

The Identity Theft Resource Center said that 44% of all registered data breaches in 2013 targeted medical companies, and that reported breaches increased more for health care providers than for any other industry from 2013 to 2014.

As more wearable devices are connected to health records and health care billing accounts, medical devices could pose an increasing threat to personal and financial data.

The bottom line
While the downsides of wearable medical devices are real, the benefits they bring will likely outpace their potential risks. Intel says that wearables and implantable medical devices could save$63 billion in health care costs over the next 15 years and reduce hospital equipment costs by 15% to 30%.

Every new technology has its drawbacks, and wearable health tech is no exception, but consumers would be wise to remember that wearables are just getting started -- and there will be plenty of time to work out the bugs.

The article The Bear Case for Wearable Health Technology originally appeared on Fool.com.

Chris Neiger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Accenture, Apple, and Intel. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.