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Apple’s News: What the Apple Watch Can Mean for Healthcare

Sarah Morgan

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iPhones weren’t the star of the show yesterday at the Apple Live announcement, though the iPhone 6 and its big brother, the 6 Plus, were announced to great fanfare. Here are a few highlights of the event overall, and a deeper dive into what has the biggest impact on healthcare.

iPhone 6 and 6 Plus – New sizes (larger and thinner), upgraded cameras, up to 128GB of storage, new A8 chip and a new iOS, a barometer to measure elevation, and a screen that wraps over the newly re-rounded edges. They may look largely like tweaks, but the changes, while not breathtaking, are meaningful.

Apple Pay – While this new mobile payment system won’t necessarily impact healthcare, at least in the short term, a whole new user experience is possible with the combination of near-field communication, Touch ID, and a Secure Element chip in the new iPhone 6. Some Apple Pay functionality will still be available on earlier phones with the iOS 8 update.

Apple Watch – This was the star of the show, the “…just one more thing” whose mere announcement got a standing ovation. Two features on the side of the watch face will complement the screen: a Digital Crown that twists and presses, and a button. These two will allow zooming, scrolling and menu choices. With a mix-and-match array of options – three watch faces, customizable displays, six straps in many colors and materials. It’s definitely a fashion accessory. With a flick of your wrist (literally), you have the ability to unlock your hotel room door, find your mis-parked car, pay for your dinner reservation or send the digital equivalent of a gesture to a friend. It’s definitely a tech marvel.

But it’s the health implications of the Apple Watch that made our ears perk up.

Two apps, Fitness and Workout, will track activity. Fitness measures movement throughout the day, dividing it into Standing (to the goal of at least one minute for each of 12 hours), Exercise (a total of 30 minutes), and Movement (a customized caloric burn). Workout lets you choose specific types of workouts and goals for them. All of the information goes back to your iPhone and can be shared, through the Health app, with whichever third parties you choose.

The tech that makes it happen include an accelerometer, gyroscope, interaction with the GPS and WiFi in the iPhone, infrared and visible-light sensors, haptic feedback (vibrations), and a display that senses both touch and force to distinguish between a tap and a press.

The combination of the communications with the biometric sensors is the sweet spot in which health opportunities lie.

  • Consider a physician who doesn’t have to wait for a patient to come in for an annual physical, Parkinson’s screening or stress test, but could assign a series of tests and goals right to the patient’s watch for acceptance, completion, and return.
  • Consider an adherence app that can now provide reminders in a more discreet way than ever before – an invisible, silent, customized vibration on the wrist.
  • Consider ongoing communication that can automatically send information from Apple Watch to Health Kit to electronic medical record, keeping a physical therapist or physician apprised of their patient’s progress. Today, patients exist in a void between office visits, and a great deal of effort is expended into understanding this time. Tools like the Apple Watch begin to make that easier.

The standard disclaimer about Apple’s proprietary outlook applies: the Apple Watch only works with an iPhone 5 or later, so that’s definitely not everyone. And it will start at $349, which is not for everyone’s budget. So, it isn’t quite a tool that reaches all of pharma’s target customers. But even a fraction of 200 million people is still quite a few.

Also, the standard worries about privacy will also apply. This new device feels more personal, and with that will come concerns, whether actual or perceived, about where this biometric data will live, and what the risks are in that. Stolen celebrity photos have reminded everyone recently that “the cloud” is not hack-proof – so while certainly Apple will have built safeguards, they’ll need to make them reassuringly visible. The idea of health data being gathered, aggregated, and accessible via phone or watch is concerning for many, but if Apple can get over this hurdle they will pave the way for others like Google and Samsung.

However, perhaps the biggest takeaway from today is quite simple: The world’s biggest “computer company” spent a great deal of their precious event time on health. They mentioned travel and email and games – but they waxed poetic about their hopes to motivate fitness, provide helpful reminders – and, most importantly, about how Apple Watch is “the most personal device [they] have ever created,” with “new intimate ways” to send and receive information. Through their speeches and their videos – not to mention their products – Apple have made it clear that they are not out to sell a device, but rather to fully integrate into a person’s life. And they made it clear that they weren’t doing it alone – CEO Tim Cook noted that the exciting part would happen when developers were able to create based on this new framework, inventing new tools based on these functions that would be beyond our imagining.

Apple creates new products and product categories to improve lives. That sounds an awful lot like the mission statement of a pharma company, doesn’t it?

You can call them a technology company if you want. But Apple is now a healthcare company.



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