Politics

Federal agency looking at fitness trackers for public sector workers

A little-known research group inside the prime minister's own department has been looking at whether public servants should be offered electronic fitness-tracking devices to help reduce their health insurance premiums.

'Exploratory' research says devices could cut insurance costs

Fitbits are one of many wearable fitness trackers on the market. Now the federal government is thinking about using the devices to help cut insurance costs for its employees. (David Trinidad )

A little-known research group inside the prime minister's own department has been looking at whether public servants should be offered electronic fitness-tracking devices to help reduce their health insurance premiums.

Wearable fitness trackers, such as smartwatches, also could be used to reward fitness-conscious employees through loyalty points programs, such as the travel points program offered by Aeroplan.

The exploratory research has been carried out in the Privy Council Office, the central organ of the federal government, by the Impact and Innovation Unit, which experiments with new ways to "revitalize the workforce."

A censored Oct. 22 memo, obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act, sets out the pros and cons of various ways "through which the public service could be encouraged to engage in healthy habits using wearable devices."

Such tracking devices have evolved rapidly in recent years, from the debut of the Fitbit a decade ago to today's armbands and sensor-equipped shoes. Activity trackers can monitor and record stats on heart rates and sleep, as well as walking and running distances.

Cheaper premiums?

"Interactive insurance policies give consumers the opportunity to receive discounts on premiums for sharing health-related information through wearable tracking devices," says the memo. It suggests the technology could be used to cut costs in the 600,000-member Public Service Health Care Plan, 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."

Sun Life's public service plan does not currently offer premium reductions for the use of fitness trackers, the memo notes. But adding a fitness-tracking element to the federal health plan could be a way "to introduce interactive policies to more Canadians," it says. (Toronto-based Manulife in 2016 introduced an opt-in life insurance policy for individuals that uses fitness metrics.)

No further work was pursued beyond the initial research phase- Spokesperson for the Privy Council Office on a proposal to have public servants wear electronic fitness trackers

The document does acknowledge the drawbacks — including privacy concerns about misuse of the data. The memo indicates fitness tracking for public servants would be entirely voluntary, but raises the spectre of insurance companies one day insisting members either use the devices or pay higher premiums.

Another proposal would have the federal government sign up for a loyalty program, such as the one offered by Carrot Rewards. Such a program would use a mobile app to offer employees Aeroplan, Scene, Petro-Points and other point-based rewards for good fitness as measured by the devices.

Carrot Rewards allows members to earn points by making healthy lifestyle choices, like walking or eating half a plate of vegetables. The rewards program can also be linked to data generated by wearable tracking devices. (carrotrewards.ca)

The memo says Ottawa would face a "significant financial investment" for a rewards program covering all 262,000 federal workers (no cost estimate is given), although the memo notes that RCMP and the Canadian Forces have banned wearable technology for security reasons. Also, workers with disabilities or mobility issues might not be able to take full advantage.

The memo also cites research raising questions about whether fitness-tracking technology changes behaviour in the long run. One study found that the tech's health benefits weaken after about 18 months.

The Conservative government in 2015 committed $5 million to a Carrot Rewards fitness project in British Columbia aimed at the general public, but the concept has not been tested in the federal workforce.

Called 'exploratory'

A spokesman for the Privy Council Office said the unit has conducted no additional research on what it call "incentivized fitness tracking."

The research group "often undertakes exploratory research to examine a wide range of topics before determining where to dedicate its resources," Stephane Shank said in an email.

"In the case of incentivized fitness tracking, no further work was pursued beyond the initial research phase."

A spokesperson for the Public Service Alliance of Canada, representing 180,000 workers in the public sector, said the federal government has not advised it about the research.

"We are also not aware of any department or agency that has implemented this concept," said Alroy Fonseca.

Follow @DeanBeeby on Twitter

Corrections

  • An earlier version of the story said no Canadian insurance companies offer premium reductions based on fitness tracking. In fact, Manulife has offered individual life insurance policies since 2016 that rely on fitness tracking.
    Mar 12, 2019 9:18 AM ET

About the Author

Dean Beeby

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Dean Beeby is a CBC journalist, author and specialist in freedom-of-information laws. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanBeeby

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