Apple Shifts Health Capabilities from Add-On to Intervention

Ryan Black
SEPTEMBER 12, 2017
mhealth, mobile health, telehealth, apple watch heart study, apple heart study, healthcare analytics news

In the same way that the ResearchKit announcement in 2015 was perhaps overshadowed by the introduction of the Apple Watch, major health-related Apple news accompanied today’s iPhone announcement. Apple Watch will now have expanded health capabilities, and some of them may redefine the company's role in healthcare.

COO Jeff Williams detailed the changes today at the company’s live hardware event. The next-generation Apple Watch Series 3 and the new watchOS4 operating system will have a redesigned workout app, but a bigger health takeaway may be an improved heart rate monitor. Williams said that the heart rate sensor has “been at the core of Apple Watch since the very beginning," and pointed out that "today, it is the most-used heart rate monitor in the world.” The new heart rate app will have expanded metrics, and it will add a new alert system.

WIlliams outlined the Apple Heart Study, which was initially reported yesterday, to monitor for arrhythmias and atrial fibrillation. The company will be pairing with telehealth vendor American Well and researchers at Stanford University on the project, which will be available in the App Store. Williams also said the company has been working with the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on the initiative, “and they’ve been great to work with.” He did not make clear if the study was built on Apple's ResearchKit framework.

If FDA collaboration doesn't indicate a shift in Apple’s approach to health, the new alert system might: “Now, Apple Watch will notify you when it detects and elevated heart rate and you don’t appear to be active,” Williams said to applause. No longer is the Watch's heart rate monitor just a bonus feature for people to use (or not use) to monitor their fitness stats: The device now has the ability to passively monitor its owner's health and provide potential intervention.

The health market, and the gadgets that increasingly surround it, represent a dual opportunity for big tech companies like Apple: they can both portray altruism through innovation and also make money. Apple CEO Tim Cook said as much yesterday in comments to Fortune: "Yes, it is a business opportunity,” he said, but also that his company’s primary approach was, “Forget all of that. What will help people?"

The shift from a provider of novel, convenient fitness and health information to one of medically and clinically useful devices may not be easy. Apple’s first major foray into legitimate medical application, ResearchKit, has shown mixed results so far in shaking up the nature of clinical research. 

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