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Digital Health

Self-tracking generates billions

Our growing desire for digital self-tracking is driving billions in growth for the industry – in both revenue and data. But not all fitness and health apps conform to data protection laws.

15 May. 2017
Self-tracking generates billions (Foto: AOK)

Measuring your hours of sleep, counting your steps – more and more of us are using digital self-tracking apps to determine data relating to our health. According to analyst BCC Research , the global market for self-tracking products is set to grow to almost US$ 20 billion by 2019. It is estimated that by the end of this year, two billion people worldwide will be using apps to monitor their bodies.

Health insurance companies have now started to tap into this trend, too. Whether digital bonus books, pollen forecasts, or online stress journals, the majority of health insurance companies in Germany are offering their policyholders their own smartphone and tablet apps. Many of these are focused on prevention; some, however, are also used for treatment. German health insurance company Techniker Krankenkasse (TK), for example, has launched pilot projects in the form of Tinnitracks for tinnitus patients and an app for treating migraines.

"Patients decide for themselves what data they wish to disclose," says Hermann Bärenfänger from TK. "Generally speaking, though, it’s vital that data is stored securely. It therefore goes without saying that health-related data is stored only on servers in Europe." Sascha Porbadnik, from German health insurance company AOK Nordost, assures: "In accordance with the principle of data economy, FitMitAOK collects only the data it actually needs to provide our reward scheme. No sensitive health data, such as medical check-up results, is collected."

Major sporting goods manufacturers have also invested more than US$ 1 billion in fitness apps. Purchases of apps such as MyFitnessPal and Runtastic give companies access to billions of sports-loving customers. Yet the majority of apps send large volumes of sometimes sensitive information, such as health data, to providers’ servers and also integrate third-party providers, such as those offering analysis and advertising services.

Apple, Garmin, Fitbit, Jawbone, Polar, Runtastic, Striiv, UnderArmour (MyFitnessPal), and Withings have now been given a warning by Verbraucherzentrale NRW (the consumer advice center of North Rhine-Westphalia) for this. The market watchdog team investigated twelve wearables and 24 fitness apps and uncovered serious infringements of privacy laws. For 16 out of 19 apps, for example, technical data, such as the smartphone’s operating system, is also transmitted to third-party providers, even before the user has agreed to the terms of use and been informed of how their data will be handled.