How Apple is building a world-class digital health ecosystem

It's enabling healthcare developers to focus on problems, not platforms.

Apple, iOS, iPhone, watchOS, Apple Watch, digital health, healthcare

You could argue that when it comes to digital health, Apple’s primary focus appears to be on software that helps users develop healthier habits. But it has a much wider vision than just this.

Making machines personal

Apple’s existing model of mass market focused sensor-based health is limited by the reality that most people are not equal, are at different stages of health and have their own very personal challenges.

Apple surely recognizes this.

That means Apple’s contributions are limited to identifying more generic conditions, exercise, heart health and so on. But it won’t always be that way.

Apple’s HealthKit developer framework lets third-party developers access some of the data gathered by the Health app on the company's devices. This has mostly been used to create apps that focus on exercise, sleep tracking, heart health and diet.

This narrow focus reflects that developers are required to gather evidence that their solutions actually work in order to develop health-focused solutions. They need an evidence base.

The burden of evidence

Gathering such evidence is expensive. Yet the lack of evidence to prove how effective mobile devices such as Apple Watch can be in certain scenarios acts as a block to developing new solutions in the first place. Apple recognizes the conundrum.

In 2014, the company introduced CareKit and ResearchKit, which have already generated valuable insights into heart health. Apple will follow this up later this fall with the introduction of the Research app, which will be used to research women’s health, hearing, heart and movement.

“Participants will contribute to potential medical discoveries and help create the next generation of innovative health products,” said Apple.

The hope must be that as Apple (as a platform provider) generates an evidence base around the effectiveness of its products in certain scenarios and for certain conditions, it will also provide building blocks developers need to build solutions for personalized care.

One of the biggest of these? Proof that these things work.

Proof-based personalization

We may already use an Apple Watch to make sure we stand regularly during the day, or to watch heart health. But with the growing evidence base Apple is investing in, future apps should be able to combine watch-derived sensor data with patient records and specific data sets gathered through mass analysis of existing medical conditions.

Developers will be able to focus their data gathering and analysis on the actual effectiveness of using Apple’s sensors and systems to monitor and generate insight into specific conditions.

This should reduce the cost of building evidence for use in more complex medical care contingencies. Spending can be focused on specific conditions, backed up by existing research.

This will enable next-generation machine learning monitoring of existing medical conditions, solutions that can exploit Apple’s sensor-gathered info tweaked with data specific to specific conditions.

The next wave of wearables is software

This isn’t purely Apple in philanthropic mode. The company already knows that personalized health monitoring is the next wave of wearable evolution.

It also knows it can’t invent every solution to every problem.

What it can do is create building blocks others can exploit  to ask and answer the difficult questions around future healthcare. This is an utterly relevant response to how the digital healthcare industry is evolving.

IDTechEx analyst, James Hayward put it this way:

“Companies are increasingly looking to leverage the data from other wearable devices for use in healthcare scenarios, from incentivizing healthy living from health insurers, to supporting early diagnosis of certain conditions, to collecting data for clinical trial."

That's what Apple is doing with the Research app.

Focus on problems, not platforms

Participants in this space are empowered by the market proliferation of sensor-based platforms (primarily Apple’s) to focus on the software, rather than needing to build the hardware to run that software on.

When they do, they are also empowered by the growing evidence base to justify faith in the various components (such as the effectiveness of Apple Watch heart health data) that form part of their response.

This enables them to exploit an already market-proven platform, exploit existing developer frameworks, and access existing patient research data drawn from major studies before they need to invest in their own research.

This is significant as it cuts the cost of development, and enables developers to build on existing research rather than being required to re-invent the wheel. The ultimate goal will be to make it possible for medical practitioners to gain never-before available data on patient health.

Of course, for Apple there are other advantages:

  1. As new breeds of personalized digital healthcare systems and apps emerge, its platforms become more attractive, and certainly more 'sticky.'
  2. The company can use this emergence to justify continued research into advanced health monitoring sensors.
  3. It can attempt to purchase any particularly innovative solutions developed by third parties on its platforms. These can then be rolled into the core product.
  4. As its ecosystem becomes more heavily invested in digital healthcare, it also becomes an easier sell – when does an Apple Watch become mandatory for outpatient support?
  5. And when you can buy into these platforms for only $299 (or get them free with your healthcare insurance), such tools are coming into reach to many. Which is good karma, as someone at Apple once liked to say.
  6. Did anyone say health insurance?

And yes, Apple gets to sell a few products.

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Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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