Aug 28 2017

Apple Continues its Massive Push into Healthcare

With hiring and research underway to improve health data acquisition, the company is likely to emerge as a health leader.

Apple continues to show that it is serious about its push into the healthcare industry.

The company recently hired Dr. Sumbul Desai, former executive director of Stanford Medicine’s Center for Digital Health, to serve in a senior role on the company’s health team. Moreover, in the last year, the company also hired former Stanford pediatric endocrinologist Rajiv Kumar and former Duke University Director of Mobile Strategy Ricky Bloomfield, who worked extensively on Apple’s HealthKit and ResearchKit efforts.

But beyond the recent hires, Apple is promising to become as innovative in the health IT field as it has been in the smartphone arena.

Apple Watch Opens Research and Monitoring Pathways

Already, the Apple Watch has become a way for researchers and healthcare providers to monitor the health of patients.

For example, researchers have been using the Apple Watch to detect atrial fibrillation via biometric sensors embedded in the wearable. As part of a pilot program that aims to improve all-around patient health for patients with high blood pressure, Ochsner Health System equipped patients with an Apple Watch, providing medication and exercise reminders, activity tracking and prescription renewal notifications through the device.

Apple also has begun looking into ways that the watch could be used to improve health outcomes, most notably through a possible partnership with insurance provider Aetna. To be successful, the company will need to ensure that those in demographics outside of health-conscious younger people — namely seniors and those with chronic diseases — will be able and willing to use the device. Constant monitoring of chronic diseases, for instance, could help catch complications before they get worse, saving patients, providers and payers time and money.

To enable this kind of monitoring, Apple released a Bluetooth application programming interface for the watch, opening a pathway for medical device makers to create interchangeable watch bands with their own vital-sign sensors. For example, one band allows diabetic users to sync the Apple Watch to a glucose sensor from a medical device.

"This new bluetooth API may seem like a small detail, but with it, Apple is laying the right technical foundation," Brandon Ballinger, founder of Cardiogram, a health-tracking app for the watch, told CNBC.

Making the iPhone a Health Hub

But monitoring capabilities could be heading beyond the Apple Watch. Word on the street is that Apple has an internal team “working with developers, hospitals, and other industry groups about the possibility of integrating clinical data into the iPhone,” 9to5MAC reports. This push to make the iPhone into a one-stop shop for health data could mean the potential acquisition of other health companies.

Moreover, a new patent granted in early August describes how the smartphone’s front-facing camera and light and proximity sensors could be used for health measurements.

The patent notes:

The electronic device uses one or more of the camera and the proximity sensor to emit light into a body part of a user touching a surface of the electronic device and one or more of the camera, the ambient light sensor, and the proximity sensor to receive at least part of the emitted light reflected by the body part of the user. The electronic device computes health data of the user based upon sensor data regarding the received light.

The patent adds that data collected could include a variety of parameters, such as “a blood pressure index, a blood hydration, a body fat content, an oxygen saturation, a pulse rate, a perfusion index, an electrocardiogram, a photoplethysmogram,” or other health data.

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