In recent months, Apple has been sending out smoke signals suggesting a major thrust into healthcare. The tech giant has bolstered its health team with four recent high-profile hires and forged partnerships with large healthcare systems. These include a clinical trial partnership with Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital and a precision medicine initiative with Scripps Translational Science Institute, according to Politico.
The company has also partnered with IBM, Johnson & Johnson and Medtronic on cognitive computing platform called Watson Health Cloud. The platform offers tailored data analytics services to clinicians.
With a current health team of about 100 strong, including medical device and medical sensor experts, the Cupertino, CA company appears poised to move beyond fitness apps to fully regulated medical technologies and clinical support systems.
In August, Apple confirmed its first digital health acquisition, personal health record startup Gliimpse. The Redwood, CA-based firm, which has raised about $1 million in seed funding, hopes to advance interoperability by aggregating health data into a single digital patient record.
The purchase was a natural fit for Apple, which had already begun to build up healthcare credentials with its HealthKit, ResearchKit and CareKit platforms, Brian Eastwood, consumer engagement and consumer directed healthcare analyst at Chilmark Research, previously told Healthcare Dive. “They’re bringing in this potential to collect PHRs into an ecosystem that already exists.”
There are those recent hires, too. Apple just hired Duke University physician and mobile strategy director Dr. Ricky Bloomfield, who helped to implement both HealthKit and Research Kit, to join its health team. The move follows the September addition of physician Mike Evans, head of digital preventive medicine at Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute in Toronto.
Other previous hires include Stanford University pediatric endocrinologist Rajiv Kumar, who implemented HealthKit to help patients manage their diabetes, and Stephen Friend, president and co-founder of Sage Bionetworks, who developed the software infrastructure for some ResearchKit apps.
Recent job listings have included a business development executive with experience in corporate wellness and an expert in data visualization to create software that provides users insights into their health data while ensuring their privacy, Politico reported. The company also posted, then deleted, a job opening for a legal counsel experienced in FDA compliance and health data privacy.
Meanwhile, Apple has a patent application pending for a new wearable device that can accurately measure electrocardiographic information across different areas of the body and provide doctors with actionable readings, according to Fortune. The device, if brought to market, would mark an expansion of Apple’s current health-tracking devices like Apple Watch and the iOS-exclusive health apps.
In a recent study published in JAMA Cardiology, the Apple Watch bested three other wearable technologies for accuracy in measuring heart rate. Accuracy ranged from about 90% with the Apple Watch to the low 80 percentile for the Fitbit Charge HR, Mio Alpha and Basis Peak.
In September, Aetna announced it would cover a good chunk of the cost of the Apple Watch for select large employers and individual customers. The health insurer also plans to provide Apple Watches free of charge to its nearly 50,000 employees to promote healthier living and use of Aetna’s wellness reimbursement program.
Apple also introduced two new health apps for Apple devices — AirStrip and 3D4Medical. AirStrip allows doctors to check appointment schedules on an Apple Watch and get feedback on patients’ diagnoses. With 3D4Medical’s large portfolio of 3D anatomical images, doctors can help patients visualize injuries and other medical conditions.
As it’s stepped up its game in the healthcare space, Apple has raised the bar for health and medical apps it will allow to be sold in its iOS App Store. In updated App Store Review Guidelines issued earlier this year, the company warned that apps that could provide inaccurate data or be used for diagnosing or treating patients will receive increased scrutiny. Those that risk causing physical harm may be rejected, the company said.
By 2018, 70% of healthcare organizations globally will invest in consumer-facing mobile applications, wearables, remote health monitoring and virtual care, fueling demand for data analytics capabilities to support population health management, according to IDC Health Insights.
Companies like FitBit, Samsung and Apple already offer wearable devices that can track everyday activities and help consumers set target goals. Newer devices offer expanded or more targeted capabilities. For example, Biotricity’s Biolife monitors heart rhythm, respiration, temperature, physical activity, and calories, and transmits the data to a clinical service provider for review and feedback. Also, medical device giant Medtronic has a tiny sensor that’s worn on the abdomen and predicts an oncoming hypoglycemic episode in diabetic patients. The sensor can be monitored via a smartphone app.
Apple’s ECG reader is expected to launch in 2017, according to Decision Resources Group, which notes there is already a device that serves this need — AliveCor’s Kardia Patch.
Discerning Apple’s long-term goal in healthcare is difficult, as the company holds its cards close to the breast. But CEO Tim Cook has called healthcare an “enormous” opportunity for the company. The firm’s Watson venture, collaborations with health systems, and focus on building a world-class health team suggest that it is seeking a larger role in the healthcare arena.