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Is Apple the New Big Pharma?

Wendy Blackburn

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Apple has made a move to own personal health with its HealthKit platform and Health app. It’s not a device, but a framework on which device apps can be built and live. However, even that is a powerful foray into healthcare when you consider Apple’s scale.

And it certainly does position Apple for future expansion. Stock analysis website Seeking Alpha offered the following for consideration recently: “Can Apple become a full-fledged medical device player? While it is true that in the not so distant future medical device companies will predominantly depend on third-party apps running on iOS, the moot question is whether Apple can emerge as a full-fledged medical device player. We believe that the possibility is significant.”

Industry pundits have also been noticing in recent months that Apple has been hiring what looks like fewer technology experts and more healthcare bigwigs. The stirrings and plans and rumors begin to beg the question: What would it take to see Apple as a direct competitor to Big Pharma? The answer may be: not very much.

And that creates its own questions. Is pharma aware of this? What are they doing to stay — or get — competitive with this possible new entrant? Is pharma doing all they can with the opportunities presented by personal health data?

One way in which Apple will absolutely be changing the game, in much the same way as many big pharma companies have attempted, is in changing how consumers think about information related to a condition. Healthcare companies have worked to brand diseases for centuries, taking a condition and promoting awareness of it to the public. Possibly the first was Listerine, which introduced the concept of halitosis nearly a hundred years ago to sell their mouthwash (source).

What Apple’s HealthKit enables developers to give patients through the Health app is a similar paradigm shift: far greater ability to analyze life, health and vitality. Mixed alongside commonly tracked metrics like activity and nutrition and sleep — and in addition to the standard vital signs of pulse, breathing rate, temperature and blood pressure — could be nearly anything: medication adherence, glucose levels, blood oxygen, falls, mood, seizures, genetics, compulsions, clarity of thought, relationships… The list is literally endless.

Who might benefit from what HealthKit promises? Anyone — from a smoker to a marathoner, a teen with suicidal ideations to a new parent.

For decades pharmaceutical companies have tried to change how consumers think about one disease at a time, to get them to think of that condition as worthy of attention (and treatment with their brand). Apple, on the other hand, may have the ability to change how consumers think about health overall — and get them to pay attention to all of it.

Perhaps the question isn’t whether Apple might be able to compete with Big Pharma, but whether Big Pharma will be able to step up their game to play with Apple.



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