Rewriting Life

Why Apple Wants to Help You Track Your Health

Apple is betting that self-tracking will become more common, and more clinically important.

Chronic health issues are a significant economic burden.

With the launch of a health app and data-sharing platform, Apple is betting that tracking your vital signs via smartphone is about to become a booming industry.

The number of apps available for health tracking has grown in the past few years, although adoption of these apps has not grown significantly. Clinicians are, however, starting to explore the benefits of using such apps to keep track of patients’ health indicators and offer advice. If this strategy proves helpful and both doctors and patients are comfortable sharing data, mobile health tracking could indeed become big enough to produce significant revenue for companies like Apple.

The new app, called Health, was unveiled last Monday at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco. It will show data from third-party devices and apps in one place—including steps taken, as measured by some sort of wearable device, and heart rate, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels (which would have to be entered manually). It will be possible to share this data with other apps, as well as health-care professionals, through a platform called Healthkit.

Apple’s announcement comes on the heels of a demonstration by Samsung of a similar data-sharing platform and a prototype wristband called Simband. The band would track biometrics such as heart rate and skin conductance, which can reveal stress.

By some measures, Apple and Samsung’s plans might seem ill-advised. Previous efforts to aggregate health-care data, including Google Health and Microsoft’s HealthVault, have had little to no success, in part because of privacy concerns but also because the benefits weren’t clear. But those earlier efforts were not aimed at mobile health monitoring, as the new ones are.

Mayo Clinic, one of Apple’s key partners in this new health project, has been at the forefront of digital self-tracking for patient care. In March, the hospital announced the results of a cardiac rehabilitation program in which patients used an app to input daily measurements of variables such as weight, blood pressure, and physical activity. The app then provided advice on how to stay healthy. Among patients hospitalized following a heart attack, only 20 percent of those who used the app were readmitted to the hospital or visited the emergency department within 90 days of discharge, compared with 60 percent of those who didn’t use the app.

Mayo Clinic plans to upgrade its health app later this year to coincide with the launch of Apple’s Healthkit. The clinic’s app is expected to offer additional services, including ways to monitor  patients with asthma or diabetes. “If you see the glucose levels rising … you could interact with [the patient] if they had a question, intervene appropriately, and then decrease the need for an emergency room visit or a hospital admission, which we know drives up hospital and patient costs,” says John Ward, Mayo’s medical director for public affairs.

To address privacy concerns, Healthkit aims to give users plenty of control. Patients could choose to share blood pressure readings with their doctor but not with another app, for example. Even so, patients are sure to be particularly sensitive about who has access to such information.

“I think that the people doing these integration platforms need to have a privacy mechanism that is believable,” says George Westerman, a research scientist at the MIT Center for Digital Business. “That takes not only a good policy but a brand people trust.”

It may also prove difficult to motivate relatively healthy people to input data. One study found that a third of those in the U.S. who bought an activity-tracking device stopped using it after six months.

“Expecting people to have an ‘aha’ moment because you’ve created a place where they can store data—you’ll be disappointed,” says Joseph Kvedar, director of the Center for Connected Health at Partners Healthcare. “It needs to be much more compelling.”

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