A huge health insurer is teaming up with Apple in a bet that an app and a smart watch can make you healthier

Apple Watch

  • Aetna, one of the largest health insurers in the US, has teamed up with Apple to build an app that tracks and rewards the health plan's members for being healthy.
  • The app, called Attain, launches in the spring. There'll be room for about 250,000 to 350,000 Aetna members at the start.
  • An Apple Watch isn't required to join, and can actually be earned through the program.
  • The new app is launching soon after CVS Health acquired Aetna, creating an entirely new healthcare company that can wield a tremendous amount of power over how healthcare gets paid for and provided to patients.

Aetna, one of the US's largest health insurers, is wagering that an app and an Apple Watch can keep its members healthier.

Through an app co-developed by Aetna and Apple called Attain, Aetna members can sign up for personalized plans that aim to get them building healthier habits, offering rewards like gift cards if they succeed. Aetna members will be able to sign up starting this spring, and the companies have been working on the program since 2016, when the health insurer first announced a collaboration with Apple.

Other huge health insurers like UnitedHealth and Humana have similar programs. Because so much of an individual's health is influenced by behaviors like sleep, exercise, and diet, the goal is to push customers to take better care of themselves, potentially making them healthier. That's also good for the insurance companies, which can make more money if those individuals need less healthcare.

Aetna was recently acquired by CVS Health, creating an entirely new healthcare company that can wield a tremendous amount of power over how healthcare gets paid for and provided to patients. The companies have said that one goal of the combination is to use their combined resources to help keep customers healthier.

'Apple's greatest contribution to mankind'

There are spots for about 250,000 to 300,000 of Aetna's 22 million members to start. Members don't necessarily have to own an Apple Watch at the start to participate, and they can earn one through the program. Instead, they can use an iPhone alone.

Read more: Fitbit's moving away from a simple step counter into health coaching as it faces competition from the Apple Watch

With Attain, Aetna and Apple will have to prove that tracking activity and rewarding members for healthy living can actually keep members healthier. Their collaboration started in 2016, when Aetna provided 50,000 Apple Watches to its employees, and made them available to some customers as well. Apple and Aetna said on Tuesday that they found that about 90% of those who participated reported a health benefit from using the watch, without providing additional information on what the benefit was.

Apple, for its part, is also working with other health insurers, as part of a focus on developing more healthcare uses for its devices. Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook recently said in an interview with CNBC that health will be "Apple's greatest contribution to mankind."

Apple, which recently warned of a sales slump, is set to release its quarterly earnings today.

United Healthcare, the largest health insurer in the US, is covering the cost of Apple Watches for members who meet certain walking goals. Companies like Vitality and UnitedHealth Group's Rally Health offer rewards for the work members do toward goals like weight loss, stress management, or better eating and sleeping habits.

To stay competitive, other wearable companies like Fitbit have been expanding into healthcare. Fitbit is working with employers and the health insurer Humana on Fitbit Care, a health platform that combines coaching, virtual care, wearable devices, and self-tracking.

It's still unclear whether wearable devices can help with the process of losing weight, a key component of most wellness programs. A study published in 2016 in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that among the 471 young adults between 18-35, those who were given wearable devices to track their activity lost less weight than those who didn't get the devices.

A new kind of healthcare company

cvs health attain activity download
CVS's acquisition of Aetna is, in part, an effort to find new ways to take care of patients and keep them healthier at a lower cost. For instance, CVS is hoping that it can make its pharmacies the place you go when you're feeling sick.

"We can open a new front door to health that is both easier to use and less expensive, while at the same time, providing convenient access to high-quality health care," CVS CEO Larry Merlo said at an investor conference in January.

As part of the effort, CVS is building "health hubs" that will be staffed with a "care concierge," who might help individuals understand how their health insurance works, or help them use health and wellness devices and technology.

Building in an app like Attain, as well as CVS's partnership with telemedicine company Teladoc is creating a "digital" version of that door, Leerink analyst Ana Gupte wrote in a note Tuesday.

"While personal health apps and devices have become ubiquitous, the Attain app differentiates itself with the ability to integrate with health data from Aetna," Gupte said. "And its targeting a broad set of members, not just fitness enthusiasts."

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