The last you'll hear from me about gadgets

February 15, 2013

Patrick Spain

OK, so I lost my Fitbit Zip. Embarrassingly, I did not do so while vigorously exercising, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, or cleaning the Augean Stables, but while sitting in a movie theater in Highland Park, Ill.

It's just as well. Because I was wrong about the end game for gadgets. It is not to help us motivate ourselves to live healthier lives or even to provide employers with incentive (and potentially enforcement) mechanisms to make sure their employees are healthy. In fact, it's not even about collecting and analyzing masses of data to cure disease or provide some other great service to mankind. Really, who cares about any of that?

Many employers are doing with healthcare what they did with retirement benefits "“ just providing their employees with a lump sum of cash and access to a place where they can buy their own health insurance. Sears and Darden (the guys who serve the healthy Red Lobster and Olive Garden food) have opted to do this.

As the 2014 deadline for full implementation of Obamacare approaches, many others will no doubt elect to do this. It makes sense. Why on earth would a company not in the industry want to become an expert on healthcare? It's like every company creating its own UPS equivalent to deliver its packages. But that's another blog post.

The big data play is very, very interesting. Correlations between various activities, genomes, and environments will likely play a massive role in improving our health. In about 50 years. Maybe sooner, if you are an optimist.

No, the end game is to feed the second oldest profession: insurance.

Turns out if you collect enough data on enough people, you can use that data to sell them insurance. While you would think that most companies prefer healthy young people (in fact they do), in the insurance biz they are the equivalent of subprime mortgage lenders. They actually want to sell insurance to old, fat people who wear glasses and take Lipitor, particularly in a world where coverage is mandatory. These gadgets, all created by third parties who collect the data, allow the insurance industry to do some pretty targeted marketing. And in a world where everyone in the U.S. will have to be provided insurance, it has the potential to allow those who use all that data to avoid targeting unhealthy people as well.

Sigh. Here I thought we were on the edge of a brave new Edenic paradise of healthcare in which big data would help us and the healthcare establishment improve our health, cure disease, and lengthen our lives. But nope, it's just about insurance. And as we all know, the whole attempt at living in Paradise ended badly.

Originally published Feb 15, 2013 10:00:52 AM.