News Release
January 8, 2015

Wearable Tracking Devices Alone Won't Drive Health Behavior Change, According to Penn Researchers

JAMA Viewpoint Suggests Strategies to Achieve Meaningful Behavior Change

PHILADELPHIA — New Year’s weight loss resolutions are in full swing, but despite all the hype about the latest wearable tracking devices, there’s little evidence that this technology alone can change behavior and improve health for those that need it most, according to a new online-first viewpoint piece in JAMA. The paper, written by researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine, the Penn Medicine Center for Health Care Innovation, and the LDI Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics at the University of Pennsylvania, points out that even though several large technology companies are entering this expanding market, there may be a disconnect between the assumed benefits and actual outcomes.

“The notion is that by recording and reporting information about behaviors such as physical activity or sleep patterns, these devices can educate and motivate individuals toward better habits and better health,” wrote authors Mitesh S. Patel, MD, MBA, MS, David A. Asch, MD, MBA, and Kevin G. Volpp, MD, PhD, all of whom are faculty at Penn and attending physicians at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center. “The gap between recording information and changing behavior is substantial, however, and while these devices are increasing in popularity, little evidence suggests that they are bridging the gap.”

Instead, the authors suggest that applying behavioral economics concepts—such as lotteries or telling individuals what they would have won had they achieved a goal—could help achieve behavioral change. “Building new habits may be best facilitated by presenting frequent feedback… and by using a trigger that captures the individual’s attention at those moments when he or she is most likely to take action.”

The authors believe that there are four challenges that need to be addressed for wearable devices—available as bracelets, watches and even necklaces from high-end designers—to effectively promote health behavior change. First, a person must be motivated enough to want a device and be able to afford it. Second, once a device is acquired, a person must remember to wear it and occasionally recharge it. Third, the device must be able to accurately track its targeted behavior. And fourth, the information must be presented back to the user (using a feedback loop) in a way that can be understood, that motivates action, and that sustains the motivation towards improved health.

“Although wearable devices have the potential to facilitate health behavior change, this change may not be driven by these devices alone,” wrote the authors. “Ultimately, it’s the engagement strategies—the combinations of individual encouragement, social competition and collaboration, and effective feedback loops—that connect with human behavior.”

Penn Medicine is one of the world's leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation's first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $5.3 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top five medical schools in the United States for the past 18 years, according to U.S. News & World Report's survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $373 million awarded in the 2015 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System's patient care facilities include: The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center -- which are recognized as one of the nation's top "Honor Roll" hospitals by U.S. News & World Report -- Chester County Hospital; Lancaster General Health; Penn Wissahickon Hospice; and Pennsylvania Hospital -- the nation's first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional affiliated inpatient care facilities and services throughout the Philadelphia region include Chestnut Hill Hospital and Good Shepherd Penn Partners, a partnership between Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network and Penn Medicine.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2015, Penn Medicine provided $253.3 million to benefit our community.


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