High costs. Disparities. Limited accessibility. Everyone agrees that there are a lot of things wrong with the US health care system right now. Fortunately, lawmakers, administration officials, and stakeholders are beginning to coalesce around wearable health technology as a possible solution because of its potential to tackle many health care problems. For example, wearable tech can address:
- High health care costs by allowing clinicians to monitor patients and intervene before a health condition becomes worse, thereby saving the health care system money.
- Health disparities by helping practitioners monitor and treat conditions like hypertension, which are more prevalent in communities of color.
- Limited access to health care providers in rural areas by allowing practitioners to remotely track patients without worrying about geographic constraints.
Given the obvious benefits of wearable tech, what are policymakers and providers doing to promote it?
The House Republican Healthy Future Task Force Modernization Subcommittee issued its recommendations for modernizing the health care system on June 1. A key policy area focuses on development of patient-centered technologies – i.e., wearable tech – while protecting privacy and allowing interoperability.
There have been legislative proposals on wearable tech, too. Last year, Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ) introduced the Advanced Safe Testing at Residence Telehealth (A-START) Act to advance the use of wearable technology. It would work by establishing Medicare Advantage, Medicaid, and Veteran Affairs demonstration programs to test the efficacy and potential use of modern telehealth tools like wearable tech by allowing patients access to these tools approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
While the Biden administration does not seem to have a specific initiative to promote the use of wearable health technology, review of wearable tech has been a regular practice of the federal government for several years. In 2016, for instance, the FDA issued guidance on regulating “general wellness products” that help monitor health, nutrition, and fitness. Additionally, the FDA issued numerous emergency use authorizations (EUAs) for wearable devices during 2020 to help patients access providers during the COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE).
However, the promise of wearable tech is not lost on the Biden administration. During an April 28 congressional hearing, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra agreed with Rep. Schweikert that wearable tech can help reduce health care costs. If the momentum on crafting policy around wearable tech on Congress continues, lawmakers probably wouldn’t have a tough time finding allies in the White House.
Health care providers are getting on board with wearable tech, too. In May, a group of health care providers, drug manufacturers, and universities launched the Digital Health for Equitable Health (DHEH) Alliance. Initial members of the group include the American Cancer Society, Otsuka Pharmaceuticals, and the Howard University College of Medicine. The new organization’s goal is to promote digital health policies like wearable tech to eliminate health disparities and barriers to high quality care. However, the DHEH Alliance has yet to announce a specific policy agenda.
What Happens Next?
Wearable health technology may be starting to gain ground, but current proposals pertaining to wearable tech are still in their infancy. First, there’s not a lot of legislation introduced around this topic, aside from Rep. Schweikert’s bill and the GOP task force’s recommendations. Second, wearable tech doesn’t seem to be a prominent part of the administration’s agenda, even though a top administration official agrees on the promise of the use of these health tools. Third, industry stakeholders who want to promote wearable health tech have yet to assemble a policy agenda on how they plan to reach their goals.
It’s also worth noting that none of the currently proposed policies address the important issue of how wearable health technology will be reimbursed. This is related to the broader argument of how the government will pay for health technology services like telemedicine after the COVID-19 PHE ends.
Thus, proponents of wearable tech shouldn’t expect movement on current proposals in the near-term, as Congress will probably be occupied with appropriations and other must-pass items through the end of 2022. However, things could change next year.
Republicans are widely expected to take control of at least one branch of Congress in this fall’s midterm election, and in anticipation of their victory, GOP lawmakers have been busy crafting an agenda that steers clear of large, sweeping packages that will be difficult to pass, like another attempt at repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Instead, Republicans in Congress are likely to use their majority to advance smaller, less-controversial health care policies that stand a better chance at becoming law, like the House Republican Healthy Future Task Force Modernization Subcommittee’s recommendations on health care technology. With Republicans likely in control of the House and/or the Senate in the next Congress, momentum on wearables tech could be poised to surge.