Last week, Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Aetna (NYSE:AET) employees sat down to discuss an interesting idea: provide free or low-cost Apple watches to everyone covered by an Aetna health-insurance plan. No one is saying how the meeting went, but if the two companies strike a deal, it could be a big win for the companies and, more importantly, the health of Aetna's members.

Can a watch make you healthier?

Fitbit may have pioneered using wearables to provide consumers with a better understanding of their progress toward their fitness goals, but Apple is arguably perfecting it.

A person holding a smart watch in one hand and a smartphone in the other hand.

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

Apple's watch came onto the scene long after Fitbit and others blazed the trail for wearables, and in true Apple fashion, the company's taken the category to new levels in terms of design, simplicity, and functionality. The category is still maturing, but Apple Watch owners already enjoy a suite of user-friendly apps that can improve their health, and more health-oriented apps are planned.

Apple is positioning its smartwatch so that it becomes a key cog in the convergence of patient healthcare and electronic devices. Its smartwatch goals include seamless data sharing of important health information between patients, caregivers, and healthcare providers.

Until now, patients suffering from chronic diseases, like high blood pressure and diabetes, have relied on point-in-time data that's tracked by hand to evaluate exercise, high blood pressure, and blood sugar levels.

A nurse checks an elderly woman's blood sugar levels using a glucometer.

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

Increasingly, however, technology is advancing to where real-time health data, such as blood-pressure readings and blood-sugar levels, can be collected, charted, stored, and shared digitally. 

That's got health insurers' attention, and rightfully so. If data can provide better insight to patients and doctors and lead to more meaningful conversations and treatment plans, then, perhaps, disease progression can be slowed, or halted altogether. Conceivably, that could save insurers billions of dollars.

The potential impact of wearables on patient health already compelled Aetna and Apple to team up on a pilot program last fall. Aetna agreed to provide discounted Apple Watches to its employees, as well as select corporate customers. Aetna then went to work creating apps to improve health data collection and, ultimately, doctors' analyses of that data.

The next generation of apps, however, could provide even greater benefits to patients. Apple already offers apps for its iPhone and smartwatches that link up these devices to a Bluetooth blood-pressure machine, and Apple CEO Tim Cook told a group of students in Scotland earlier this year that he's tracking how his diet affects his blood sugar levels by using an Apple Watch that includes an optical sensor that "sees" through the skin. Eventually, technology like that could eliminate painful finger sticks, which provide limited insight into a patient's blood-sugar trends.

I doubt Apple's going to stop there, either. Linking technology that measures patient health in real-time to devices administering medicine, such as insulin, would seem to me to be a natural extension for wearables. 

A female doctor gives a thumbs up in a patient's room.

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

Looking ahead

Apple wants its smartwatch to be a must-have device, and packing life-saving features inside it is a great way for that to happen.

Aetna's got 23 million health-insurance members who could benefit from wearing an Apple Watch, and if Apple can successfully make the case that its watch can save lives and reduce costs, then this partnership could significantly boost Apple Watch unit volume. For perspective, Apple shipped 2.8 million Apple Watches last quarter, according to Strategy Analytics, and that gives it 13% market share in this growing market.

If Aetna will expand its existing Apple Watch program to its members is anyone's guess, and if it does, it's not clear if Aetna will cover 100% of its cost, or simply offer discounts. Nevertheless, the potential to improve patient health with smartwatches makes this story well worth watching.

Todd Campbell owns shares of Apple. His clients may have positions in the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple and Fitbit. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.