Apple Watch, HealthKit's impact on healthcare

On Tuesday, Apple CEO Tim Cook and other executives introduced several new products and updates to a full house at the Flint Center in Cupertino, Calif.

One of these new products was the headline-catching Apple Watch, a small, wearable computer. The smartwatch will have a variety of functionalities, from hotel key to car finder, but the presentation emphasized the watch's biosensing capabilities and its potential to help users monitor their health and fitness. "Apple Watch... is a comprehensive health and fitness device," Mr. Cook told attendees.

The Apple Watch has an accelerometer to measure body movement, a heart rate sensor and a pedometer linked to GPS to measure distance. The smartwatch comes with a couple fitness apps that feed data to the user's iPhone (Apple Watch only works in conjunction with one of the newer iPhones), though Apple executives stressed the platform would be open to developers to create more health and fitness apps.

The Apple Watch will be available at the start of next year and retail for $349. Morgan Stanley analyst Katy Huberty told Time she expects Apple to sell between 30 and 60 million Apple Watches in the first year, which would make it the fastest-selling product Apple has ever introduced.

However, these new Apple Watch users are unlikely to be the people most in need of health or fitness interventions, says Greg Caressi, senior vice president of healthcare and life sciences at Frost & Sullivan. "What we see from existing wearable users indicate the user base will likely skew heavily towards those who are already aware of and tracking their fitness and health, and who are relatively healthy... While the [Apple Watch] will likely expand the user base of wearables beyond the current quantified self-movement to some of the 'worried well,' it won't likely penetrate many of those who are the highest risk and highest cost as long as it remains a consumer device."

What is more interesting for the healthcare industry, he says, is the HealthKit platform that will allow consumer health information gathered either through a wearable like the Apple Watch or through another health or fitness app to be sent directly to providers.

HealthKit, available Sept. 17 with the iOS 8 update, aggregates user-generated and sensed data and displays it in a single interface for users in a related app, Health. However, through partnerships with Rochester, Minn.-based Mayo Clinic and Epic, raw data will be able to be pushed directly to providers' EHRs. According to an Apple news release, Duke Medicine in Durham, N.C. and Stanford (Calif.) Medicine will be able to receive HealthKit data through the Epic app, and Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins, Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente and Allscripts are reportedly in talks with Apple to extend this functionality to even more providers.

"The real impact on healthcare and healthcare costs in the U.S. will come in the near term through disease management solutions that expand the reach of information flow to clinicians from the high-risk and at-risk individuals who suffer from chronic disease conditions that drive 75 percent of healthcare costs in the U.S.," says Mr. Caressi. "Another data collecting device is not the panacea to make this reality. What Apple is doing with HealthKit (and Epic and Mayo) is the more important event to track and analyze."

However, detailed discussion of HealthKit or the rumored co-presentation with Mayo Clinic officials was notably absent from Tuesday's presentation, leading to speculation of another Apple event in the near future focused on the company's health offerings. "Given that Apple invited several healthcare luminaries to attend Tuesday’s event, I would expect to see something soon," Jim Adams of the Advisory Board Company told Forbes.

Few words about HealthKit or Apple's healthcare plans did not tamper CIOs' enthusiasm about the new offerings. On his blog, John Halamka, MD, CIO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, gave a very specific hypothetical about how his hospital could use HealthKit: "Beth Israel Deaconess could create a Patientsite application that you trust to access healthcare data on your phone. Your care team could monitor this data for meaningful variations and intervene via a home care visit or telemedicine connection when appropriate."

Randy Gaboriault, CIO of Wilmington, Del.-based Christiana Care Health System, also has plans for the new products. He told The Wall Street Journal he envisions Christiana Care receiving biomarkers and data directly from patients and using the information to identify users at high risk for an emergency department visit, allowing the health system to send a home care nurse as a lower-cost alternative. "Better care costs less money… a technology like that will fit wonderfully on the patient front," he told the Journal.


More articles on Apple:

5 new mHealth apps
Right before celebrity breach, Apple banned HealthKit developers from storing PHI in iCloud
Apple updates HealthKit privacy rules prohibiting developers from selling PHI to advertisers

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