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In pursuit of health and wellness - Fitbit, Weight Watchers digitally disrupt their business models

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan March 12, 2018
If health is "the new skinny" and wellness is a priority, there are disruptive opportunities for Fitbit and Weight Watchers.

Weight Watchers and Fitbit

People around the world claim to be more health-conscious than ever before, with wellness as a priority. But that’s not translating into demonstrable societal changes - which is an opportunity for some health and fitness services providers to up their game.

Take Fitbit as an example, where CEO James Park points to 25.4 million customers who make his firm’s devices part of their “health and fitness journey”. So far, so good, but also so much more potential to be tapped into, he argues:

Healthcare is the largest sector of the [U.S.] economy [and] continues to grow at a robust pace. While the pace of growth is strong, we are not yet seeing this translate into better health outcomes of scale due to the focus on episodic care rather than prevention. We believe that the healthcare system is broken and a shift towards outcomes and prevention is required to reach its full potential and bring real benefits to patients.

Technology has advanced to the point where it can play a significant role in the shift, specifically by helping clinicians deliver more personalized care that extends beyond the walls of the clinical environment, leading to better health outcomes and ultimately lower healthcare costs.

Digital consumer tech is now at the stage where it can assist patients to get past the reality that “meaningful and sustained behavior change is hard”, says Park:

With more than 105 million people in the U.S. suffering from pre-diabetes, diabetes, or hypertension, let alone across the globe, there is a significant opportunity to help people prevent the onset or advancement of these conditions. It can start with simple changes and the right support, [but] must be integrated into daily life…There is a reason why healthcare partners have chosen to work with Fitbit and why we are the wearable device provider for nearly 95% of NIH funded research studies using a wearable device.

The National Institute of Health, cited by Park, is a good example of such partnerships in action. He explains:

In November [2017] we announced that Fitbit was chosen as the first wearable device to be utilized in a study which is an exciting preview of a new era in evidence-based medical treatment. We heard from members of the research community that our devices attract patient studies and keep them engaged in a way they have not seen with our consumer technology. This is the power we can bring to healthcare and help provide to the system what has long been missing which is patient engagement.

There are other examples of how the U.S. healthcare industry is tapping into Fitbit tech, he adds, citing United Healthcare (UHC), the nation’s largest insurer:

Last year Fitbit Charge2 became available through a UHC's Motion program which was built on incentivizing users to move more in order to get cash back on the healthcare premiums. This program has paid out over $19 million in awards to date. Building on that success Fitbit was chosen as the wearable partner for United Healthcare and Dexcom's diabetes pilot program. The goal of this program is to help seniors with Type 2 diabetes, learn how specific behavior changes can impact their blood glucose levels throughout the day and, over longer periods of time, ultimately helping them to achieve better health outcomes.

Fitbit is also putting its money where its mouth is to support its healthcare sector ambitions, recently announcing its acquisition of Twine Health:

Twine Health brings additional medical expertise into Fitbit with the clinically tested and HIPAA-compliant platform. It provides an interactive health coaching experience that combines both technology and real time support through a convenient secure mobile application. The platform also provides sophisticated dashboards for workforce health providers and their coaches that they can optimize their efficiency and cost effectiveness. Together with Twine we can help healthcare providers better support their patients beyond the walls of the clinical environment and over time we can also extend the benefits of the Twine platform to more than 25 million users as a paid service.

HIPAA is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act which sets the standard for protecting sensitive patient data in the U.S. and data is one thing that Fitbit has a lot of. At last estimate the company reckoned its databases hold 105 billion hours of heart rate data, 6 billion nights of sleep, and 200 billion minutes of exercise from which to analyze. While privacy has to come first, Park believes that users can be presented with a compelling enough value proposition to agree to share their data:

For example, data is valuable to payers for their actuarial assumptions and can be the basis for financial incentives to consumers. It can also be leveraged on a de-identified basis by research institutions and platforms. Data can also be utilized to pioneer digital therapeutics or effectively utilize software as a medical device. Or data can be utilized to provide AI-driven insights and reminders that help people understand the impacts of their actions on their health with the goal of making positive behavior changes on a daily basis.

The new skinny

The failure to match personal health ambitions to achievement of those goals also preoccupies Weight Watchers. The slimming company has been through a digital transformation program of its own, one of variable success but which recognizes that the traditional ‘turning up for meetings’ business model needs to have digital avatars.

CEO Mindy Grossman argues:

There's a paradox in the world today. People all over the world want to be healthier. The global wellness economy is now a $3.7 trillion market. But even though people are thinking in a healthier way, they aren't getting healthier. Worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975. As of 2016, more than 1.9 billion adults were overweight. Of this number, 650 million were obese.

In the U.S. alone, more than 70% of adults and more than 33% of children are overweight or obese, and the rise in obesity is tied to a decline in life expectancy. In fact, this is the first time life expectancy in the U.S. has declined two years in a row since 1962 and 1963. We can help solve that paradox.

People’s heath and wellness goals are shifting, she adds:

Today, healthy is the new skinny. Increasingly people who join Weight Watchers are interested in something more than getting into a size 8. They want to feel healthy and happy at every size. I do not want to say that they don't care about numbers. They do, but it's not just the number on the scale. They care about keeping their A1c numbers down or their cholesterol counts or lowering their blood pressure. It's about health, activity, and feeling good about oneself. To get there, they want to develop behaviors that will improve their quality of life without having to make drastic changes that aren't realistic or sustainable.

But people need to realize that they need help, she adds:

People often ask me who our competition is. It's not another company. Our competition is the 90% plus of people believing they can become healthy or lose weight on their own. We want to become their partner of choice, a partner to help them, inspire them and to be part of their journey to lead healthier lives. The world doesn't need another diet. The world needs a leader in wellness and a brand that can bring wellness to everyone, not just a few.

That, of course, would be Weight Watchers and its Impact Manifesto, which is the firm's vision statement of intent. Grossman says:

Weight Watchers is a community. It's supportive. It's social. It's inspirational. It gives people everything they need to lead healthier lives. To be clear, we aren't changing who we are. We're changing the conversation about what makes us unique and changing mindset, so we can change how the world sees us.

If you think about the food, what you put in your body, first, we unequivocally are going to own that solely. We're going to develop the programs, we're going to own the science, we're going to do the research. That is ours to own. As it relates to activity, we're not going to become a fitness company.

The goal is simple - to own the digital side of the health and wellness industry. Grossman says:

You have Amazon for shopping, Netflix for content, Spotify for music, Weight Watchers should be the world's everything app for wellness. It is essential that our members have a unified Weight Watchers experience, whether it's in a meeting room every week, online at or through our app and Connect community. We plan to leverage new tools to make our meetings more integrated with our vision for the future, better utilizing technology to simplify the check-in process and finding other ways to support our team, so they can spend as much time as possible inspiring and coaching our members.

My take

Two examples of companies setting out to disrupt their own business models to tap into a supposedly-expanding global opportunity. If successful, each might not only find a long-term survival option for their own businesses, but deliver some benefit to the health and wellbeing of people.

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