Here is Apple's smart plan for digital health

Apple is going to be good for your health

Apple, iOS, iOS 10, Apple Watch, digital health, data analytics
Credit: Sam Howitz/Flickr?Edit

I’ve been talking about Apple’s interest in digital health for years. Bit by bit my expectations on this are proving correct, with Apple developing Health, Activity, Care Kit, Research Kit, advanced biometric sensors and apps for wheelchair users, swimming and even breathing.

An Apple a day

Apple wants to be good for you

None of these efforts are trivial. The company is working with health professionals, expert scientists and government regulators in its attempt to create a digital health ecosystem that actually does keep you well.

“Health is a huge issue around the world and we think it’s ripe for simplicity and a new view,” Apple CEO, Tim Cook told a May conference in Amsterdam.

The company is also willing to go the extra mile and invest in good research and good science for its health solutions. Last week I learned that the Swimming Activity app you will find in Apple Watch Series 2 is based on over a million swim hours of data. Apple has confirmed that Wheelchair is based on similar high investment in research time. Meanwhile the sensors Apple is introducing take years to develop. This is not a trivial attempt, and these things work.

Bloomberg today confirms what I pointed out just last week: That Apple wants to expand HealthKit from being a basic fitness tracker to becoming a useful diagnosis tool.

Next generation digital health

The Bloomberg report claims Apple is working on an app that figures out an Apple Watch wearer’s fitness levels “by measuring the time taken for the heart rate to fall from its peak to resting level.”

Earlier this year Apple filed a patent for an Apple Watch that can constantly monitor a wearer’s heartbeat, warning them of impending heart attack.

The big ambition is to gather lots of useful data, generate useful real-time insights from that information, and to make it easy to bring that information into the fragmented landscape of Electronic Health Records across the industry (hence the Gliimpse acquisition).

The big idea is to give physicians access to the quality and quantity of accurate biometric data they need in order to improve treatment and diagnosis.

Regulatory challenges

The report points out that Apple will need to get regulatory clearance for some of the solutions it is developing, and may need to pop an LTE radio inside the Watch in order that the device is always connected.

“We don’t want to put the watch through the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) process,” Tim Cook told the UK Daily Telegraph this year.

“I wouldn’t mind putting something adjacent to the watch through it, but not the watch, because it would hold us back from innovating too much, the cycles are too long. But you can begin to envision other things that might be adjacent to it -- maybe an app, maybe something else.”

We already know that while developing Apple Watch the company considered different sensor technologies to provide stress, heart rate and blood pressure monitors, but rejected those that didn’t perform consistently or required regulatory approval.

Technology and healthcare

Speaking in 2013, Ovum’s then lead Healthcare & Life Sciences analyst, Charlotte Davies told me of her predictions for digital health, “More and more care will be delivered outside hospitals and clinics… mobile devices – from smartphones to monitoring devices – will become increasingly important as the number of patients cared for at home or in sheltered accommodation or other community centers increases,” she said.

Apple’s health team includes key researchers with a background in the application of big data analytics on health care. This connects to Apple’s recent investments in machine intelligence, leading me to anticipate anonymized but accurate public health solutions from the company.

Apple’s plan for health

This is what I imagine Apple’s digital health strategy is built around:

  • To offer consumer products (principally Apple Watch) that among their many other features also offer the best available health and fitness trackers and FDA-approved biometric and system sensors.
  • While protecting customer privacy and security to ensure the data gathered by these devices can be securely shared with leading Electronic Health Systems currently used in healthcare, and that medical professionals can quickly and easily access this data, even remotely. (88% of physicians want patients to monitor their health parameters at home).
  • To link doctors and their clients together so both sides receive early alerts if sensors detect potential crisis.
  • To provide patients with an emergency system so they can request help if necessary (now available in iOS 10).

These solutions will have implications in health insurance and employment. CDW Healthcare claims:

“Wearable technology could drop hospital costs by as much as 16% over the course of 5 years, and remote patient monitoring technologies could save our healthcare system $200 billion over the next 25 years.”

Data analytics

What the Bloomberg report today suggests is that Apple is determined to invest a huge chunk of cash into figuring out how its technologies can be good for you.

Of course, all this data has further implications in data analytics. I suggest Apple wants to continue working with differential privacy until Apple customers can securely and privately contribute to research studies aimed at using these technologies to monitor and track public health.

Apple’s relationship with IBM and that company’s own investments in data analytics for health also seem likely to come into play.

Digital health is going to become a key business for Apple, but its apparent commitment to delivering solutions based on good science will hopefully drive good benefits to everybody.

Indeed, it may be easier to innovate in health than in the ever more complex automated vehicle sector). One app at a time your smart-something will in future save your life.

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