Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Apple Said to Expand HealthKit From Tracker to Diagnosis Tool

  • Company works on watch apps for tracking sleep, fitness levels
  • Gliimpse purchase, ResearchKit pave way for health-care push

So far Apple Inc.’s HealthKit has mostly collected fitness data from its devices. In the future, if the company gets its way, the software will interpret that information, turning it into advice for users, doctors and others.

Scores of health-care experts hired by Apple in recent years are building improved electronic health record software that can better analyze and understand the implications of patient data, according to people familiar with the team’s plans.

The iPhone maker is also working on new apps for the Apple Watch. One helps users track sleep patterns, one of the people said. Another app gauges fitness levels by measuring the time taken for the heart rate to fall from its peak to resting level, according to one of the other people. Apple already has an app that measures heart rate, but doesn’t interpret that data.

The ultimate goal of Apple’s medical technology team is to turn HealthKit into a tool that improves diagnoses, the people said. The system could chip away at two problems that plague the industry and have stumped other specialist firms in the field: interoperability -- allowing data to be transferred from hospital to hospital across different databases; and analysis -- making it quick and easy for physicians to extrapolate salient information from mountains of data.

Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook wants Apple to do more in software and services to secure new sources of revenue and make customers more dependent on the company’s devices. The $8 trillion global health-care industry is a big opportunity.

“If you drive for a while and your car gets too hot, it says pull over. If you need an oil change, it says check your oil. What’s the equivalent for the body?" Cook said at a May conference in Amsterdam. “Health is a huge issue around the world and we think it’s ripe for simplicity and a new view.” An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment.

Gliimpse of Future

Earlier this year, Apple bought Gliimpse Inc., a startup that built software to pull electronic health records from different databases and in different formats, then store them in one place.

“I will be working on building a platform, a set of application program interfaces, and a simple product that will bring what we believe will be a disruptive consumer health-care application to the U.S. for the first time,” Apple Health senior engineer Mohan Randhava wrote on his LinkedIn profile, which states he was employed at Gliimpse until February. 

He likened the product to Apple’s music business. That started with the iPod, but as people became accustomed to storing all their music files digitally, Apple built a lucrative music platform on top of the device.

Apple health software could become a revenue driver, too, by keeping people wedded to the company’s devices. If a patient’s health records, and related suggestions, are accessible through Apple’s system, it would be harder to trade in an iPhone for a smartphone running Google’s Android operating system, and its health-tracking software Google Fit.

The second version of Apple’s Watch has a faster processor, a built-in GPS tracker and is water resistant so people can run, swim and do other exercise with the device. The updated Watch software, dubbed watchOS 3, places health tracking information more prominently in the user interface, and adds a breathing exercise app as well as swim tracking.

Building more sensors into the Watch serves a limited purpose. An accelerometer can generate most of the useful data needed to monitor a person’s well-being, according to one person with knowledge of Apple’s plans. A glucometer or blood-pressure sensor would only help a small percentage of users, the person said.

Adding new medical sensors would also likely require approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a much higher bar for Apple to cross.

“If they are going to an FDA device, it would need to have enough battery life to last a day, and something where it independently functions from your phone,” said Yuri Teshler, a health-care consultant at Moor Insights & Strategy. Apple can’t really do anything more with health-related sensors until the watch has a wireless LTE chip and the independent cellular connection that comes with that, he added. Apple has so far struggled to do that.

Embedding

It’s unclear how soon improvements to Apple’s HealthKit may be introduced. ResearchKit, another Apple software, lets research institutions and drugmakers conduct clinical trials using iPhone apps, and some of the trials hint at possible future applications for HealthKit. Each clinical study using ResearchKit brings Apple a step closer to embedding itself in hospitals, labs and doctors’ surgeries.

North Carolina’s Duke University developed a ResearchKit app using the iPhone’s front-facing camera to conduct facial recognition checks which try to screen for and diagnose autism. Johns Hopkins University is using the Apple Watch’s accelerometer and heart-rate sensor to track the onset and duration of seizures and try to predict them. In July, GlaxoSmithKline Plc became the first drug maker to start a ResearchKit clinical study.

“Apple is working hard with many of these large institutions to generate tools that are medically correct, to take data from sensors,” said Scott Jenkins, CEO of health data management company Certainty Health LLC. “They want to be the repository, the open collection space.”

Stephen Friend, a Merck & Co. veteran who founded health data non-profit Sage Bionetworks, is credited with being the brains behind ResearchKit. He joined Apple full-time in June having worked as a consultant for more than two years. Flipboard co-founder Evan Doll rejoined Apple in July as a director of health software engineering.

Yoky Matsuoka, formerly technology chief at Google’s Nest Labs unit, also joined Apple’s health team last year. Nest is known mostly as a hardware specialist, but Matsuoka led the development of software that interpreted and learned from data that its internet-connected thermostats collect. She’s using that machine-learning experience as she oversees a health-data team at Apple.

Apple’s greatest hurdle for now is proving to medical professionals that data delivered from wearables through HealthKit and ResearchKit is reliable. 

Brennan Spiegel, a gastroenterologist at Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai Hospital, said clinical studies are crucial to making wearables useful.

“It’s wonderful to have advanced methods of aggregating and presenting data, but there’s a risk of it becoming a garbage-in, garbage-out project,” Spiegel said. “It doesn’t matter how sophisticated the technical solution is. What matters is whether the data going into that solution are generating clinically valuable, actionable results that’s improving human health in a way that’s cost-effective.”

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