Watching the Apple Watch

After Apple, Inc.’s high-profile entry into the marketplace in April 2015, most of us are now aware of “smart watch” technology.

Once the initial hype had dissipated, it seemed that only hard-core techies continued to tweet and blog about it … with one notable exception. Dan Diamond, executive editor of the Advisory Board Company’s “Daily Briefing” newsletter for healthcare executives, has been watching Apple Watch technology even before its official launch — and his observations are very enlightening.

Recent surveys show that more than 50% of consumers are interested in buying wearable technology such as fitness monitors and, like its competitors, the Apple Watch offers health apps:

  • Apple Health provides an easy-to-read dashboard of the wearer’s health and fitness data
  • Apple HealthKit synchronizes 22 health and fitness apps on the watch and, with the wearer’s permission, makes the device accessible to physicians, hospitals, technology developers, and others.

Last month, Apple was reportedly engaged in high-level talks about the possibility of the Cloud-based HealthKit becoming the health data hub for some of the nation’s leading hospitals.

For Diamond, the implications and value proposition for hospitals and physicians are unclear.

Although the technology sounds transformative, he cautions that physicians and hospitals don’t know how to use the data or if it has value to them; centralized data from health trackers (e.g., information on calorie counts and step taken) will not necessarily help physicians and accountable care organizations to manage their highest cost patients.

While Apple’s vision for HealthKit may come as no surprise, its ResearchKit has real potential for what some call “creative destruction” — a process through which something brings about the demise of whatever existed before.

Apple believes that this technology will change the way researchers identify participants for their clinical trials by allowing more than 700 million Apple users (worldwide) to “opt in” to clinical trials via their Apple Watches or iPhones.

In theory, ResearchKit will improve real-time, accurate data collection in clinical trials, and, because of users’ propensity for wearing their devices (or keeping them at arm’s reach) 24/7, Apple’s strategy might succeed.

Perhaps because of Apple’s iconic stature, many well-respected organizations have already been willing to experiment with ResearchKit; for instance:

  • When Apple announced five clinical trials last spring, there was record demand from potential participants — more than 7,000 in 6 hours, according to Sage Bionetworks.
  • Apple collaborated with the University of Rochester, Xuanwu Hospital, and Capital Medical University in a design incorporating ResearchKit in a Parkinson’s disease study.
  • Apple has created apps for: diabetes research in partnership with Massachusetts General Hospital; asthma research in partnership with Mount Sinai Hospital and Weill Cornell Medical College; cardiovascular disease research in partnership with Stanford University and the University of Oxford; and breast cancer in partnership with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, UCLA School of Public Health, and Penn Medicine.

Despite these pioneering collaborations, Diamond predicts that this technology will not become the industry standard any time soon for several reasons: HealthKit’s healthcare data model and measures lack sophistication; patients remain skeptical about pharmaceutical industry research; and, importantly, when “consumers” become “human subjects,” Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) issues must be addressed by ResearchKit developers.

The bottom line is that we in the healthcare industry should take note as this technology evolves — and watch the Apple Watch.

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