Why Apple must accelerate its digital health product development

COVID-19 has driven fast digital health deployment worldwide. Apple should accelerate its own product development plans to match the time.

Apple, iOS, Apple Watch, COVID-19, digital health, remote healthcare
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Apple CEO Tim Cook likes to predict his company will be remembered for its achievements in health, but if COVID-19 has generated anything positive it must be the acceleration of digital healthcare. Can Apple respond?

Remote healthcare comes of age

While there’s nothing to replace the experience of a face-to-face consultation with a medical professional, initial enquiries can be made remotely, and we’ve seen a huge upswing in that tactic since the pandemic struck. In France, for example, tele-consultations accounted for 28% of all consultations in April. That’s up from just 0.1% in March.  

This kind of growth has taken place everywhere.

We’ve seen remote consultations take place worldwide, giving patients a first line of inquiry while protecting everybody’s health.

These COVID-related implementations aren’t confined to remote diagnosis. Hospital doctors are now transacting patient visits using iPads to protect against accidental infection. We’ve got apps based on Google/Apple tech to help with contact tracing, and some of the world’s biggest players in the space are merging and acquiring at a rapid clip.

We’re also seeing rapid deployment of new business offerings based on digital healthcare. CVS, for example, intends to open 1,500 health hubs, providing a range of health-related services, including on-demand video consultations.

Technavio says the sector is expanding fast, predicting a combined annual growth rate at more than 20% across the next five years. In part, this is driven by increasing acceptance and recognition of urgent need for such tools on the part of government, medical practitioners and people.

“The digital transformation that has happened in the last few months is here to stay," Jamf CEO Dean Hager said. He was talking about both remote working and digital health provision.

Keep your distance

Look at it this way: With limited numbers of medical staff and the need to avoid infecting them, or their patients, it is appropriate to use technology to bridge the gap while still enabling people to get – and give – help.

We know we face a global pandemic of Biblical proportions. We know the human race should have been better prepared for it. History shows humanity has faced such plagues before, which means no government can realistically argue that it could not have predicted another.

We also know there will be more such outbreaks in future – and facing the current crisis has driven rapid adoption of remote healthcare solutions.

In a sense, this is the realization of a prediction by Ovum’s then-lead Healthcare & Life Sciences analyst Charlotte Davies in 2013:

“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.”

This is precisely the kind of care delivery model we’ve seen expand so quickly in recent months.

What has Apple got?

We know Apple has a whole bunch of solutions on the market now or in development that contribute directly to this new age of socially-distanced health provision.

Its growing offering ranges from the camera and microphones on its hardware to electronic health records, CareKit, ResearchKit, the Health app and the sensor-laden health biometrics powerhouse that is the Apple Watch.

That’s just a whistle through its list, but a little research yields many more examples of what the company is doing or has already done.

For the most part, Apple seems focused on augmented solutions that empower people to take better care of themselves: “In general, Apple’s favored approach seems to focus on under-promising and over-delivering,” remarked IDTechEx analyst, James Hayward recently.

The Activity app, for example, constantly goads hardened users into healthy habits, while the heart health tech on Apple Watch helps us recognize ailments.

Hayward characterizes Apple’s approach as one in which the company, “manages customer expectation in the short-term while delivering partnerships, know-how, product capabilities and strategies for an expanding medical relevance over time.”

For all their promise, one challenge with digital health devices is cost.

In Apple’s case, it means its augmented health intelligence is unevenly distributed, probably out of reach of cohorts that may most benefit from the availability of these tools. The connection between economic hardship and ill health isn’t hard to make, which suggests a need to democratize availability to achieve the best potential.

Health insurance firms offering an Apple Watch free to customers is a step in the right direction, but one that sadly still leaves many outside the bloc.

It’s also important to recognize that digital healthcare tools are no magic bullet. They don’t make health problems go away, they just add a little additional insight that can help patients or care providers make better decisions.

Apple’s own vice president for health, Dr. Sumbul Desai, warns that it’s good to remain skeptical about what these solutions can do.

Seize the day

Apple plans its approach to product development and new markets. If it were not for the impact of COVID-19, it’s likely that the move to remote health treatment would still have taken place across a longer period of time.

It probably has a road map for product development and introductions that reflects these estimates. The company must now surely recognize that the pandemic has dramatically accelerated digital healthcare adoption (as those figures from France above show).

This hastening acceptance means that if Apple’s health teams have been aiming for a point at which such solutions become commonplace in, say, five years, they may need to expedite preparations to grasp the present opportunity.

Just as remote working has become normalized, we’ve seen years of digital-health sector growth compressed into months and exposing need for better health tools today. This, in itself, implies that if Apple has anything in its R&D departments that may already be ready for the mass market, the right thing to do is to bring such solutions out as swiftly as possible. I’ve a feeling it’s working on more than tools to help you wash your hands, after all.

Digital health has come of age.

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Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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