Are Fitness Tracker Developers Missing the Point?

Are Fitness Tracker Developers Missing the Point?

The internet feeds our obsession with data. We can use the web to log our calorific intake, sleep patterns, and even the number of kilometres we cycle per week. There is no end to the amount of activity data that can be tracked – and no shortage of developers looking to cash-in on our obsession with cool new fitness apps and wearables.

The trouble is that the people who could really benefit from all this innovation are not the ones being targeting by Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs. Instead, the chronically ill and disadvantaged are studiously ignored while fitness freaks and gadget happy thirty-somethings order their Jawbones and Fitbits from Amazon.

Miles and Miles of Red Tape and Bureaucracy

The sad thing here is that there is a hugely lucrative market out there if only developers were willing to think outside of their box but, as ever, bureaucracy is the sticking point. Companies who want to develop health monitoring gadgets have to run the gauntlet of the FDA, the HIPAA, and all kinds of red tape. It isn’t as simple as designing a device and releasing it into the marketplace. All healthcare devices have to connect to a patient’s existing healthcare records and adhere to all relevant health laws.

At the recent Wearables and Things conference in Washington D.C there was no shortage of cool gadgets for measuring fitness and making life that little bit easier. Nike’s chief scientist announced that measuring an athlete’s body temperature, blood oxygen levels and the number of steps he or she had taken was now irrelevant. Instead, he said, the next generation devices would be using complex algorithms to analyse an athlete’s performance.

The level of frenzied hype in favour of fitness apps and the like was immense, but it isn’t surprising when you remember that the majority of developers are twenty-something males.

A Huge Market for Tech Wearables

There are currently around 266 wearables on the market (118 of them for the lucrative fitness sector), with plenty more in development. It is a saturated market, but there is no shortage of highly educated developers and entrepreneurs with the ideas and know-how who want to produce even more gadgets. And yet not everyone is convinced that this is the way forward.

Kabit Kasagood, director of business development of Qualcomm Life, a company specialising in medical technology, attempted to address the problem. He did his best to persuade tech developers at the conference to look beyond the fitness tracker market and start applying their unique skillsets to the development of innovative products for the healthcare market.

“If you’re serious about this, embrace the FDA. Learn how HIPAA works,” he implored.

But, despite Kasagood’s impassioned words and the observation that the healthcare sector is where the big money is, most of the audience were unimpressed. They were, however, wildly impressed with a prototype shoe clip christened “Dorothy” that allows the user to click their heels together three times to call for an Uber cab. And there we were thinking that the Uber app was simple enough.

Is it because Health Tech is Boring?

Fitness trackers are fun whereas health tech is tedious. Any entrepreneur wanting to produce a healthcare gadget needs to go through clinical trials, work out how to integrate their device with existing legacy systems, deal with security issues and figure out how to monetize user data. Is it any wonder young, upwardly mobile tech entrepreneurs are not interested?

And yet the activity tracker market isn’t exactly expanding. Most fitness trackers are a one-minute wonder. People take up fitness training and invest in all of the latest gadgets. They buy a Garmin GPS watch and a heart rate monitor in the hope of fine-tuning their 10k times or losing an extra kilo or two. Unfortunately, many of these expensive devices are shoved in a drawer or given to a friend within six months when the user’s commitment to fitness wanes.

Living with Long-Term Chronic Health Problems

People with long-term health problems are much more committed to tracking their health data. They don’t have the luxury of losing interest in their health problems because they are living with them day in and day out, and the more chronic health problems you suffer with, the more likely you are to become your own advocate and start tracking health indicators such as blood pressure and blood glucose levels.

There is a Huge Potential Market for Medical Wearables

The market for wearable medical devices is phenomenal – $2.8 billion has been spent this year alone and it looks set to increase to more than $8 billion over the next five years. In fact the number of blood glucose test trips exceeds the sales of fitness watches sold in 2014 six times over. Clearly there is a big market to tap into if only tech entrepreneurs would see the light.

So why are they refusing to step up to the plate and create wearables chronically ill people actually need?

Navigating the Labyrinth

Navigating the labyrinth of HIPAA security rules and applying for FDA approval is a huge hassle for developers; likewise, working out how to integrate with legacy systems. Nevertheless, this isn’t the only obstacle standing in the way of savvy tech entrepreneurs. The unsavoury truth is that creating medical technology for chronically ill people is not sexy at all.

Rising to the Challenge

Twenty something tech engineers are not interested in elderly diabetic patients or their caregivers. They can’t relate to the guy who has to use a mobility scooter to travel to his doctor’s appointments because of his weight problems and chronic arthritis, which is why they would rather have fun creating fitness-related technology for people who go to the gym and amateur triathletes looking to fit in an Ironman this year. In other words, people like them.

Unfortunately, with rising medical costs crippling the economy, we really do need the ultra-bright techies of this world to be a bit more philanthropic and help an aging, chronically ill population.


Nic McCoy

Co-Founder and Director of Talent Solutions

Nick is an experienced sales, marketing and recruitment professional with the last 12 yrs+ spent working with Medical technology companies and digital health innovators.

LinkedIn | More articles by Nic McCoy


  • Dan Kendall

    Wearables have an important role to play, but it is far beyond counting steps and heart rate. They will be more integrated in clothing, and they will communicate with both environmental sensors and in-body devices. The capabilities and form factors for ‘wearables’ will evolve just as the expectations of a ‘cell phone’ has changed over the past 10-15 years – but it will change a lot more quickly than cell phones have.

  • Nuno Almeida

    The statement that jumps at me in this post is “Twenty something tech engineers are not interested in elderly diabetic patients or their caregivers.” This is the ultimate challenge for companies operating in the digital health and digital care space. Thankfully, at Nourish we have a group of highly motivated millennials that get the challenge and are committed and humbled by the complexity and the opportunity to truly make a difference in the space. I’ve become accustomed to the slight arrogance of developers in the wearable market creating “lean companies” who seem to imply proofing MVPs with complete disregard to privacy by design, data security or compliance with any of the established regulatory frameworks. Yet, plenty of the products can have a massive impact in health care. In the IntegrAAL project we are currently evaluating wearable devices and their potential role in supporting older people with recurring dehydration. It’s shocking that the founders of these companies don’t see the huge opportunity and impact they could be having.

  • Joao Bocas

    Wearables represent an incredible opportunity, offering meaningful insights with regards to health data. However there are many challenges to overcome, and I would like to name a few : data accuracy , sustainability and compatibility working with other solutions and finally personal adherence.

    Exciting times ahead with new trends, patterns and approaches meeting the demands of the consumer. In 2016 expect to see more preventive and pre-emptive wearables, also cross clinical validation is well under way. More will be revealed….