Federal agency experiments with fitness trackers for public-sector workers

by Leo Almazora13 Mar 2019

A research group working inside the prime minister’s own department has been exploring the possibility of offering public servants electronic fitness-tracking devices in an effort to bring down their health insurance premiums.

The Impact and Innovation Unit, which looks at new ways to “revitalize the workforce,” has been conducting the exploratory research within the Privy Council Office, reported CBC News.

Citing a censored October 22 memo it obtained through the Access to Information Act, CBC News said the unit laid out pros and cons of various methods “through which the public service could be encouraged to engage in healthy habits using wearable devices.”

Noting the existence of interactive insurance policies, which “give consumers the opportunity to receive discounts on premiums for sharing health-related information through wearable tracking devices,” the memo suggested that wearable technology could be useful in cutting costs incurred through the 600,000-member Public Service Health Care Plan, which is administered by Sun Life Financial.

“Typically, tracking devices collect consumers' fitness metrics (e.g., daily steps taken or gym visits) and are linked to the insurance provider's mobile application. Fitness metrics are stored within the app, and eventually become applied to insurance premium savings,” the memo continued.

While insurance premium reductions aren’t among the rewards currently offered for the use of fitness trackers in Canada, the memo noted that tacking on a fitness-tracking element to the federal health plan could “introduce interactive policies to more Canadians.”

But the use of fitness trackers does come with drawbacks, conceded the memo, including privacy concerns. While it clarified that public servants would be allowed to decide if they would like to participate, there’s still a possibility that insurance companies would eventually insist that members either use the devices or pay higher premiums.

Another proposed approach is to sign public workers up for a loyalty program. Rather than directly tying their fitness activity to their insurance plan, a loyalty program would entice them to get healthier with point-based rewards.

A rewards program covering all 262,000 federal workers would entail a “significant cost investment,” though the memo doesn’t offer a cost estimate. The benefits might be limited for workers with disabilities or mobility issues, it added, while those in the RCMP and the Canadian Forces are banned from using wearables for security reasons.

In an email to CBC News, Stephane Shank, a spokesperson for the Privy Council Office, said the unit has not gone beyond its initial research on “incentivized fitness tracking.” Another spokesperson from the Public Service Alliance of Canada, representing 180,000 workers in the public sector, confirmed that it has not received any advisory from the federal government about the research.