Best Buy's new health experiment: Selling Aetna's wellness programs

By Brian Dolan

Brian Dolan, Editor, MobiHealthNewsThe biggest health-related news that broke ahead of the massive Consumer Electronics Show (CES) taking place in Las Vegas this week wasn't the launch of some new connected health device or fitness tracker. Instead, the big story (so far) is about an unlikely experiment that a trio of Best Buy stores in the Chicago area are undertaking with health insurance provider Aetna.

While the pilot doesn't include any specific connected health or fitness devices, it may help sell a few.

With the frequency of new consumer health and fitness devices that launched over the past year, it's looking like Best Buy shouldn't have too much trouble filling the health and fitness sections of its brick-and-mortar stores. Two and a half years ago a Best Buy executive predicted that in 2012 some 50 million cellular-enabled devices would pass through its stores, and he specifically mentioned connected health devices as an important subsegment of those devices. Toward the end of 2009 Best Buy announced plans to begin selling health and fitness devices at about 40 of its more than 1,000 stores nationwide. In mid-2010 New Jersey-based healthcare provider Meridian Health let it slip at a MobiHealthNews event that it had been working with Best Buy to test whether shoppers would be comfortable buying health-related devices at the electronics store. By the end of 2010 Best Buy had formally announced plans to bring health and fitness devices to about half of its stores (or about 500 stores) nationwide. This past year, Best Buy began selling wellness devices like Zeo's Sleep Manager at all of its stores.

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Best Buy wasn't the only store to begin selling these devices in recent years, but it has led the charge. Of course, selling devices is not a wholly unexpected move from Best Buy. Its most recent foray into health -- to try to sell wellness programs in collaboration with Aetna -- is much more of a curveball.

Three Best Buy stores in the suburban Chicago area are now selling four wellness programs offered by Aetna focused on fitness, weight management, smoking cessation, and stress management. Shoppers can buy hanging cards that explain each of the online programs that they can then access online. Each program costs $19.99.

"Best Buy seemed a natural choice for trying out some of our well-being products with the general public," Louise Murphy, the head of Aetna's behavioral health and employee assistance programs, stated in a press release. "These online programs take the things you 'should do' and turn them into things you 'will do'."

Aetna said that if shoppers are at Best Buy to purchase a pedometer or blood pressure cuff, they might also be interested in a program that helps them achieve health goals associated with the device. Best Buy employees at these three particular stores have been trained specifically to help shoppers in those store's 1,200 square foot "health department" sections.

If the Aetna-Best Buy experiment proves successful, it could lead to more payors creating health programs that are designed to appeal to those shoppers snapping up this next generation of health devices like Withings' blood pressure cuff, iHealth's weight scale, the Basis B1 Band, Fitbit Ultra, or Jawbone's UP -- some of which are available at Best Buy stores.

What is puzzling about the experiment's current setup is that these device makers are not working in collaboration with Aetna. The insurer's health plans are designed to complement or take the place of any programs already bundled in with the devices. Or they might be able to stand on their own.

Will users be willing to pay another $19.99 for the additional program? Does a program offered by Aetna appear to be more effective than one designed by a connected health device maker? Will the Aetna programs drive sales of connected health devices?

Or, will this pilot go the way of Best Buy's first health-related experiment, it's ill-fated attempt in 2004 to launch a new chain of retail stores, called Eq-Life, which aimed to help women shoppers buy technology and resources to manage their family’s health? While this small but important addition to Best Buy's "health department" pilot certainly doesn't seem at first blush to be as ill-fated as Eq-Life was, it is surprising to read that Aetna considers Best Buy a "natural choice" as a place to sell wellness programs.

It is commendable, however, that this odd couple is giving it a go.