In a year where healthcare and wellness took precedent in all of our lives, Apple’s
These announcements demonstrate Apple’s continued activity in the more than $4-trillion-dollar global wellness market. However, when examined as part of a series of investments in research and partnerships with healthcare organizations, Apple’s new products signal a bigger play. The company is poised to take a bite from an even larger industry slated to be valued at more than 10 trillion dollars by 2022: global healthcare.
Wellness and healthcare are very different industries. The former loosely spans everything from consumer products like fitness equipment to meditation retreats and apps. The latter is a tightly regulated field focused on specific medical outcomes and informed by clinical research and review. While the evolution of the Apple Watch is another positive step toward democratizing medical data and insights, tech companies can’t approach healthcare in the same way they do consumer technology. The Watch Series 6 leaves us wondering how actionable such personal medical data is, whom Apple is prioritizing, and, critically, who will own this extensive personal data.
I Know My Blood Oxygen Level – Now What?
The most notable innovation in the 6th generation of Apple Watches is the capability to track blood oxygen levels, thanks to the addition of infra-red light sensors on the back of the watch face. Blood oxygen is indeed a crucial indicator of overall health and can potentially also be used to indicate or manage lung, kidney, and other conditions. However, it is a healthcare metric that the average individual likely has not been tracking.
How many of us know what a healthy blood oxygen level is and how it changes over the course of a day? What actions should we take once we see the reading – if any? Moreover, can this data give users a false sense of security or cause unnecessary anxiety or alarm fatigue?
Understanding everyday personal healthcare data – and how it differs in various situations – requires, at minimum, expert guidance and potentially clinical oversight. Apple is currently careful to stay away from claiming the Watch is a medical-grade diagnostic tool, which would require it to undergo an extensive FDA certification process and its equivalents globally. However, if Apple is delivering personal healthcare data to its users, it is also important to provide context and guidance that help people understand what to do with it.
Does Wider Use Equal Wider Impact?
The Apple Watch is a consumer product. For many, its primary function is still reading emails, making calls, and – once in a blue moon – checking the time. It is not currently clear what medical outcomes Apple aims to support with the Watch’s healthcare advancements.
If better medical outcomes are a priority, an everyday wearable like the Apple Watch has the potential for greater impact when focused on a more specific user group, such as clinicians or patients with a specific condition. For example, healthcare providers could use consistent patient healthcare data to customize specific regimens for serious conditions. Patients with a chronic condition like COPD could potentially use real-time personal medical data integrated with their healthcare provider’s regimen to make decisions that help them stay safe throughout the day.
Apple has announced that it is launching three new research studies with independent academic partners to learn how healthcare metrics from the Apple Watch can help manage conditions that affect the heart and lungs, including asthma, covid-19, and heart failure. This may signal a greater interest in the clinical impact of the product. It will be interesting to see how this research informs Apple’s future healthcare efforts, and whether Apple chooses to prioritize the largest possible user base, or greatest possible healthcare impact.
Can We Reconcile The Tension Between Privacy And Interoperability?
While privacy is a key tenet of Apple’s values, some of the most exciting opportunities from wearable healthcare devices – and what makes them truly meaningful in understanding a person’s holistic health – are derived from data sharing.
Will Apple allow for interoperability so that its products play well with other convergent healthcare devices? If this data proves reliable, can it be digitally integrated into electronic health records? Could Apple’s size allow them to work with research universities to train AI detection algorithms? With potentially millions of people generating daily personal healthcare data through their Apple Watch, it also begs the question: who owns this data?
These are difficult questions to answer. But if Apple is serious about stepping into the healthcare market responsibly, it must do so with a stakeholder-centric strategy that focuses on its users’ data security as well as their healthcare outcomes. Beyond its customers, Apple must consider how these devices work with healthcare providers, researchers, insurers, electronic health record systems, and the myriad of regulated devices – from pacemakers to drug delivery tools – not to mention adhering to FDA protocol.
Taking A Stakeholder-Centric Approach
New capabilities could see Apple lead the democratization of healthcare devices and data literacy that helps people make healthier lifestyle choices, prevent or detect disease, and improve healthcare outcomes. Apple’s continued investment in medical monitoring capabilities and research demonstrates its intention to play a larger role in the healthcare industry. While the Watch Series 6 is a positive step toward the possibilities of an everyday wearable, it remains to be seen whether Apple will take a responsible, stakeholder-centric approach to its foray into healthcare.