Apple aims for new healthcare 'ecosystem'

Jeff Rowe
Apple aims for new healthcare 'ecosystem'

You could say we are a society hell-bent on convenience. It seems pretty much everything we build for personal use – our appliances, our cars, our living spaces and more – is built with an eye toward making them as easy as possible to use.

Healthcare has proved to be an elusive target in the race to convenience. Yet many believe that Apple with its new ecosystem around health will change that. The iWatch, HealthKit and ResearchKit are considered data integration opportunities that will change healthcare the way the iPod and iTunes changed the way we listen to music.

One of the first applications to demonstrate the possibilities was announced by athenahealth. The athenaText app for Apple Watch delivers secure text messages to providers directly from the athenaClinicals EHR platform. The goal is to improve coordination of care among different providers. Clinical data is delivered instantaneously. The clinician doesn’t even need to tap a screen; the information just appears on the wrist watch.

Apple ResearchKit is designed to help speed up the acquisition of clinical trial data and it is showing significant results in its first applications. Dr. Stanley Shaw, a Harvard Medical School assistant professor who was involved in developing ResearchKit, was quoted in FastCompany, “It really highlights the possibility of democratizing data around people’s health.”

In one early study, according to the article, “Within just four days of its release, MyHeart Counts, a cardiovascular-focused ResearchKit app designed by the Stanford University School of Medicine, was downloaded 52,900 times in the U.S. and Canada, with an unprecedented 22,000 people also consenting to participate in the study. Typically, that kind of participation might require a year's work and dozens of medical centers.”

Four other academic institutions—including Oxford University and Beijing's Tsinghua—have built apps using ResearchKit, which contains graphical templates for in-app electronic consent, surveys, and tasks.”

But whether we’re talking about “democratizing data” or, as Fast Company describes Apple’s goal, “a central clearinghouse for medical data, health apps, and customized workouts,” it seems wise to remind ourselves that health and healthcare are not quite in the same category as accessing digital music or making cashless payments, just two of the places where, with the iTunes Store and Apple Pay, the company has essentially revolutionized modern life.

There is a uniqueness to healthcare, both because of the seemingly infinite range of diseases we encounter and the fact that different people engage with their health and healthcare quite differently.  Consequently, no matter how much technology is brought to bear – no matter how successfully tech developers create entire digital ecosystems – the transformation of healthcare will require more careful coordination than simply using fitness trackers on our wrists.