Apple Extends Its Reach into Healthcare

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Apple continues to shape the future of healthcare.

At its September 12 special event, Apple CEO Tim Cook and COO Jeff Williams announced something less sexy than the $1,000 iPhone X but no less important: new health and fitness features through watchOS 4, the operating system that powers the Apple Watch. They include:

  • Improved heart monitoring. The Apple Watch already performs basic heart-monitoring with Cardiogram (In fact, according to Williams, the Apple Watch is the most-used heart rate monitor in the world.) But with watchOS 4 (available September 19), Apple Watch will also report resting heart rate and recovery heart rate (the latter metric tells you how quickly your heart rate drops after a workout). As Williams said, a lower resting heart rate and a quicker recovery rate can be signs of improved fitness.

  • Alerts on elevated resting heart rates. Williams noted that many Apple customers wrote to Apple about how their Apple Watches helped them detect unusually high heart rates at unexpected times. So the Apple Watch now notifies owners when the device detects an elevated heart rate and the owner does not appear to be active — thus alerting the watch owner about potential heart problems.
  • Better support for your workout. For example through the GymKit technology platform, watch OS 4 will make it possible for people to sync fitness data between their Apple Watches and cardio machines they use at the gym, thus delivering more accurate fitness information such as calories burned or distance traveled during your workout. The sync feature will only work with newer pieces of gym equipment — so that functionality might be limited.

Apple also announced that the company is working with Stanford Medical Center to determine whether the Apple Watch can accurately detect abnormal heart rhythms, or arrhythmias. As noted by Jessica Conditt of Engadget, Apple would like for the Apple Watch to be able to detect common – but often undiagnosed — heart conditions such as atrial fibrillation. According to a study done by Cardiogram and the University of California, San Francisco, the Apple Watch already detects the most common type of heart arrhythmia with a 97 percent accuracy rate. With the Apple Heart Study, Apple will manage its own research with Stanford Medical Center.

“In our Initial studies, Apple Watch has been effective at surfacing irregular rhythms,” Williams said. He noted that the Apple Heart Study “will use data from Apple Watch and analyze arrhythmias including [atrial fibrillation] and notify users.” Thomas Tamblyn of The Huffington Post provided additional detail on how the study will work:

To try and better detect, diagnose and then in turn treat these irregular heart rates, Apple will anonymously send health data from participants through its HealthKit SDK straight to the research team at Stanford Medicine.

Just like the previous studies on dementia, Apple’s HealthKit allows research teams the rare chance to gather huge sample rates of data while still making sure that all the data is anonymised.

The Apple Heart Study will be an app that users in the US can download for free onto their Apple Watches and it will simply run in the background.

The first phase of the study will be available later in 2017 on the app store.

Apple’s Aspiration

These developments are part of Tim Cook’s vision to make Apple a healthcare market maker. Market makers do more than sell products. They change the way people live. And Cook sees healthcare as a way for Apple to effect long-lasting change in how people and companies use data to manage health.

As I discussed in my recent report Dr. Apple Will See You Now, Apple has been developing tools such as HealthKit and working with medical centers such as Johns Hopkins to help patients manage their wellness and clinical care – including heart monitoring, managing epilepsy, and many other health needs and issues. I believe Apple aspires to be the data backbone for patient care. That strategy has two key elements:

  • Software for patients and providers to monitor and share data, which is where apps such as HealthKit come into play.
  • Hardware: the Apple Watch and iPhone to create an ever-present device platform. (According to Cook, the Apple Watch is now the Number One watch in the world.)

The September 12 special event underscored this strategy especially with software and the Apple Watch.

Cook Articulates a Vision

Cook recently articulated this vision to Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky. When Lashinsky asked Cook about Apple’s interest in healthcare, Cook replied:

We’re extremely interested in this area. And, yes, it is a business opportunity. If you look at it, medical health activity is the largest or second-largest component of the economy, depending on which country in the world you’re dealing with. And it hasn’t been constructed in a way where the focus at the device level is making great products from a pure point of view. The focus has been on making products that can get reimbursed through the insurance companies, through Medicare, or through Medicaid. And so in some ways we bring a totally fresh view into this and say, ‘Forget all of that. What will help people?’

Cook has good reason to focus on healthcare, especially wellness and fitness, or initiatives to keep people healthy. The PwC’s Health Research Institute (HRI) cites wellness care as one of the top forces shaping the future of healthcare industry, with wellness accounting for $276 billion of the $5 trillion U.S. healthcare ecosystem.

And a recent study by Technavio says that the global heart rate monitoring device market to grow at a compound annual rate surpassing 13 percent during the forecast period 2016-2020 as people become more comfortable using wearables to monitor their health in order to avoid costly medical treatment for health problems.

Healthcare Is at a Digital Inflection Point

According to the widely-read Internet Trends 2017 report from Kleiner Perkins analyst Mary Meeker, healthcare is at a digital inflection point. The proliferation of wearables and health apps and consumers’ willingness to share health data are among the factors transforming health into a data-driven industry connected through digital. As if to underscore Meeker’s points, Cook mentioned to Fortune,

One of the things that we’ve learned that we’ve been really surprised and delighted about is [the Apple Watch], because of the monitoring of the heart, has essentially alerted people through the collection of the data that they have a problem. And that spurred them to go to the doctor and say, ‘Look at my heart rate data. Is something wrong?’ And a not-insignificant number have found out if they hadn’t come into the doctor they would have died.

As I have blogged, Apple is well positioned to power the future of healthcare as the industry reaches a digital inflection point. Apple has the financial muscle, brand strength, and relationships with a vast healthcare ecosystem to deliver on Cook’s vision. The Apple Heart Study with Stanford is but one example. Apple products are also preferred by physicians (75 percent of doctors in the United States own some form of Apple device, according to a study by Manhattan Research.)

The future of healthcare is here. And Apple has helped to create that future.

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