Making 10 per cent of Canadians less sedentary by 2020 would increase the national GDP by $1.6 billion, according to a study
BY Nicholas Sokic | Financial Post
Elevators at Manulife Canada’s Toronto headquarters are now adorned with signage that reads, “the stairs go the same way.” It’s part of Manulife’s efforts to change sedentary lifestyles, as it rolls out its life insurance app to its employees and the rest of the country in partnership with Discovery Health, the South Africa-based subsidiary of the financial services group Discovery Ltd.
The Vitality app tracks your health based on several personalized physical and mental personalized assessments. Users can reach bronze, silver, gold or platinum ranking based on their own fitness goals, and win discounts and gift certificates for hotels.com, Amazon, Cineplex and Tim Horton’s, among others.
Manulife launched Vitality in the U.S. four years ago under its John Hancock Financial division, and on an individual basis in Canada in 2017. The group benefits version was launched for Manulife employees in July, which reported 50 per cent participation in its first month.
The Toronto-based insurer has now opened the group benefits program to other companies during a staggered rollout, and already counts Walmart Canada and Scotiabank as customers.
The Vitality app is used in more than 20 countries with 10 million participants. Manulife signed a global pledge with other life insurance companies to make 100 million people more active by 2025.
“About a year ago we decided to launch it in the benefits business so that’s been about developing the platform for the employer market and testing it,” said Donna Carbell, the head of group benefits at Manulife Canada.
Participation in the program is entirely optional and there are no consequences for choosing not to participate, the company notes.
“Customers can select the method, type and amount of information they share,” according to Manulife. “The information is used to encourage customer engagement with the program and reward customers for participating in healthy activities.”
Despite privacy and other concerns, getting people to move around is an uncontroversial goal. During a presentation, Manulife’s chief executive officer Mike Doughty stated that four chronic conditions — respiratory, cardiovascular, cancer and diabetes — are responsible for 60 per cent of all deaths worldwide and 85 per cent of Manulife’s group benefits claims.
The highly personalized nature of the assessments in the app result in a radically different fitness experience for each user, even accounting for pregnancy, Carbell said.
“I may be a very sedentary person who has a chronic condition and it will create a different program for me so I will achieve a gold status with a very different exercise and fitness regime than a marathon runner will,” said Carbell.
Manulife cited a study from the Conference Board of Canada saying that making 10 per cent of Canadians less sedentary by 2020 would increase the national GDP by $1.6 billion and reduce national healthcare costs by $2.6 billion.
RAND Europe, an independent research institute, conducted a study last November surveying 400,000 people in South Africa, the U.S. and the U.K. and found that people using the Vitality app in conjunction with Apple Watch saw an equivalent of 4.8 extra days — an increase of 34 per cent — of physical activity on average each month.
Still, there are some obvious apprehensions in handing over the minutiae of your health information to a third-party.
“There’s always concerns about privacy,” said Carbell. “Any info an employee keys into the system, which might be my waist circumference or body mass index, all of that is housed with Vitality. We don’t even have access to that.”
Instead, the monthly report that employers receive would only contain demographic data such as how many employees are actively using the app.
“They could, theoretically, sell the information to third-parties without any consent on the part of the subject. But (totally voluntary) means nothing,” says Ann Cavoukian, the executive director of the Privacy by Design Centre of Excellence at Ryerson University. “Most people probably haven’t even looked at who the information is shared with, what that consent means.”
Toronto-based John Wunderlich of the self-named privacy and security firm also thinks the situation is not so cut and dry.
“I think it’s hard for me to see what the value offering is for both employer and insurance provider if it isn’t employee health surveillance.”
While employee consent is required, “the pendulum is swinging” on how rigorous that consent may be, Wunderlich says. For those that don’t want to participate, the impact could be anything from increased stress or pressure to perform in an unnatural fashion.
This hypothetical situation is not beyond the pale either. Last year, a statewide West Virginia teacher’s strike was partially brought on due to the Go365, a heartrate- and step-tracking app. A US$500 hike in a teacher’s annual insurance deductible was the punishment for failing to reach a certain amount of points. The program was later abandoned.
However, Manulife counters that it’s “committed to respecting and protecting” customers’ personal information.
“We have organizational, physical and technical safeguards in place to ensure the confidentiality, integrity and availability of the data entrusted to us,” the company said.