Tim Cook keeps promising new health features, probably for Apple Watch

The Apple CEO seems very positive that we'll hear a lot more from him on digital health.

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The digital health sector should think deeply about what happens next as Apple CEO  Tim Cook has again spoken out about his company’s focus on wellness technologies.

Prevention is good for business

Cook talked up Apple’s plans for digital health with IDA Ireland CEO Martin Shanahan. His focus is very much on prevention, above cure – perhaps reflecting the depth of research and the huge burden of proof required before new technologies can truly be declared lifesaving.

“I think you can take that simple idea of having preventive things and find many more areas where technology intersects healthcare, and I think all of our lives would probably be better off for it,” said Cook.

He’s basically arguing that technology can be developed that can provide early warnings of big health problems, empowering people to take better care of themselves.

Can wearables make you well?

His argument is being picked up on by health practitioners worldwide, particularly as millions succumb to relatively preventable conditions such as obesity or diabetes.

The World Health Organization (WHO) warns that diseases such as these, cancer and heart disease together account for around 70% of deaths worldwide. Air pollution, drug resistance and global pandemics such as flu are among the biggest problems. Mental health issues are also becoming endemic.

While Cook wasn’t specific in his promises, he did say:

“Most of the money in healthcare goes to the cases that weren’t identified early enough. It will take some time, but things that we are doing now – that I’m not going to talk about today – those give me a lot of cause for hope.”

Reading between the lines of what Cook said, it seems clear that when it comes to preventative health Apple is focused on Apple Watch. That’s as big a hint as we’re going to get about the company’s digital health product development.

Apple Watch: exploring digital health frontiers

We can already guess this means the company is developing new health sensors, new activity sensors and enhancements to its already life-saving heart monitoring tools.

When it comes to software, Apple will certainly be looking to develop health-focused machine-learning systems capable of monitoring how we live – and offering up useful advice to help people stay well. That’s effectively the kind of thing Activity already does, with the addition of new tools likely developed using the company’s digital health research solutions.

It remains to be seen whether anything more comes of Apple’s investment in primary care clinics for its employees, though it is likely company employees already contribute test results for its research teams. Apple’s swimming Activity tech used extensive data from real swimmers, after all.

It is important to note that many of America’s larger corporations are bringing elements of employee health provision in house, so perhaps nothing will become of the investment. Earlier reports said the company has hired designers tasked with implementing programs to prevent disease and promote health behavior.

That’s even before you consider the potential for more sophisticated Apple-developed health solutions.

What’s happening in the industry?

Some recent headlines may help explain the kind of digital health opportunities that are already available for Apple and others to explore through wearable devices such as Apple Watch:

  • The Lancet recently reported on a study that showed real-time flu prediction may be possible using wearable heart rate and sleep tracking devices.
  • Research is also taking place that uses digital devices and sensors to help monitor and manage some mental health diseases.
  • Caspar Health, a provider of a digital patient aftercare that enables patients to manage their own care remotely recently pulled in $5.3m in Series A funding.
  • Stanford Medicine’s 2020 Health Trends report confirms the data gathered by smartphone apps and wearables “more often than not” provides "clinically valuable" information.

It seems logical to think Apple might explore any of these sectors. Each one relates strongly to Cook’s hints about “preventive” care. While there is no evidence at all that Apple is involved in any of the industry research that is taking place, Cook’s statements make it clear the company is definitely watching the space. In the future, if an Apple Watch can detect it, and Apple's software can analyze the information it picks up, the company will probably make something from it.

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Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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