Can Apple Keep the Doctor Away?

health“His treatment was fragmented rather than integrated. Each of his myriad maladies was being treated by different specialists – oncologists, pain specialists, nutritionists, hepatologists, and hematologists – but they were not being coordinated in a cohesive approach.”

Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson (p. 549)

As you’ve undoubtedly heard, Apple made a big splash last week by announcing “official” involvement in healthcare through a new app and accompanying SDK. In the past week much fanfare has been made and many speculations have been raised. As an industry that is built on the notion of looking forward, the obvious question right now is, “Will Apple Succeed?” An important precursor however is, “What is Apple trying to do?”

The announcement at WWDC was scant on details, comprising just three minutes of the broader two-hour session. More detail is available elsewhere, but the basics are that this fall, Apple will release an app called “Health” to track and store multiple health data, mostly from devices, of around 60 parameters upon release with iOS 8. The app will enable selective sharing of data, across other apps or with other individuals. The app’s release coincides with the pre-release of an SDK called “HealthKit”, designed to allow third party apps built with HealthKit to be able to have common data structures for data management, sharing, and privacy control. Two early partners were announced in Mayo Clinic and Epic, though details of those partnerships are still TBD.

So the vision here appears to be that patients and healthcare providers can use multiple apps written on Healthkit, all through a consumer-controlled, portable hub (that also makes calls!) to help fill the healthcare void when patients are away from a health facility.  Sound familiar? So much for “Think Different” – Apple is not trying out anything new here. Rather, they are betting that this particular formula of consumer-friendly hardware, new software, brand strength and market clout can result in a win. But they are also, finally, addressing a problem that has plagued health apps for years: an inability to aggregate data into one spot for a more complete view of one’s health.

Over the long term, the web-dominant approach to the above vision is slowly dying; the notion of sitting down at a computer to upload workouts or blood sugar readings into a website already seems antiquated compared to automated tracking on a device. So if mobile truly is the future, then Apple seems better positioned then others to capitalize on that trend, save Samsung.

With Samsung’s recent announcement of the SAMI platform, their S-Health app on the S4 and S5, and other recent activity in health IT, they too have arrived to the party. We will cover both tech titans’ varying approaches more deeply as part of the CAS as details around them emerge. For now, looking at ghosts of PHRs past as well as the current mHealth environment, we can point to several issues that will define the success or failure of Apple and their contemporaries.

Timing: Compared to predecessors, Apple has the benefit of timing on their side. Consumer-friendly hardware is now ubiquitous in the market (much of it Apple’s) and growing in sophistication. Healthcare software has decidedly shifted in a mobile-friendly direction, from a wellspring of APIs from major HIT vendors to emergence of standards like HL7’s FHIR. With the MU3 PGHD provision set to roll out this fall, the timing here could work out in Apple’s favor.

Wellness vs. Health: Many from Aetna to Microsoft have struggled trying to straddle the fence between wellness and medical care. We suspect Apple will be no different. Despite the umbrella of “health”, fitness tracking and condition management are two different marketplaces. Apple’s best bet for success may be to drive Wellness growth through B2C efforts, and drive clinical adoption through healthcare partnerships and clinical evangelists. For now, it is Apple’s best interest (and the broader industry’s collectively) to keep these lines blurred.

Quality and Curation:  With regards to adoption, the biggest healthcare complaint about mHealth is that there is too much going on. With over 43,000 apps available in some flavor of health, Healthkit adding more may not necessarily be better. It remains unclear what Apple’s involvement at this level will look like, but if they really want to get a foothold in the marketplace, they are best served by addressing this issue on some level.

Data: Apple is essentially the Epic of their industry: They’re big and well-fed and they don’t play well with their peers. Apple may take the same approach that Epic took before being regulated into interoperability by the ONC; they are big enough and far enough outside of healthcare that the NPRM for Stage 3 PGHD might not matter to them.

Closing Thoughts: Potential vs. Reality

At this early stage, questions can go on forever. Speculation aside, one thing we can safely say is that Apple is not all of a sudden a healthcare company. With this recent announcement they have simply provided some new tools to a broken industry, tools that appear to be arriving at the right place, at the right time.

Hopes seem to be higher within the healthcare industry and across the blogosphere that this is just a first step for Apple. With its beloved brand, vast resources, design-driven thinking, and technological expertise, many are rooting for Apple to be the one to rewrite the chapter on enterprise mHealth strategy. Realistically however, Apple’s goals here are likely more simple: to sell more phones, tap directly into a booming mHealth market (Remember, Apple keeps 30% of all app revenue), and grease the wheels of their widely rumored iWatch rollout.

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Posted in Connected Health, Consumer Engagement, consumer health, Google Health, HealthVault, mHealth, Privacy, telemedicine Tagged with: , , , , ,
2 comments on “Can Apple Keep the Doctor Away?
  1. Bill Crounse says:

    Well stated, Naveen. A balanced and fair review of the opportunities and challenges. So far, I’m not seeing much that is new. HealthVault is already a robust platform that connects to hundreds of consumer health and fitness devices. It holds the PHRs of millions of consumers, has a rich ecosystem of contributing partners and healthcare providers, has a mobile app for both Windows and Apple phones, and, in my opinion, is well positioned as a better model for HIE (connecting everything to the patient instead of everything to everything else–the later being a model that has failed over and over round the world). It’s good to see other leading companies stepping into the water. How all this plays out remains to be seen. Nothing about healthcare is easy or happens fast.

  2. Naveen says:

    Thanks Bill. I followed your blog post and ensuing discussion about the “patient-centric” HIE model and chatted with Sean briefly about it a few weeks back. Think the biggest challenge for that model is simply lack of automation. Getting people to be “proactive, active stewards of their health info” is part of the healthIT mythology that we need to start tearing down – it’s not going to happen, so product design and interoperability need to be re-tooled accordingly. Even for the 1% who are that motivated, the platforms simply don’t work as advertised. See my last post for the headaches that still happen (yes, even with Healthvault): http://www.chilmarkresearch.com/2014/05/30/data-data-everywhere-not-liquid-enough-to-use/

    But as you say, not easy, and not fast. We’ve come a long way and have a long ways to go yet.

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