Apple's Health Care Prospects Intrigue Industry Observers

By Michelle Maisto  |  Posted 2014-05-10

Apple's Health Care Prospects Intrigue Industry Observers

There's little doubt that Apple is planning to introduce some type of health and fitness solution, whether a device, software, a platform or all three. The question is the scale of the impact such a solution—coming from a company that's proven it can change the behaviors and expectations of people around the world—might have.

For nearly a year, at least, there have been reports of Apple hiring professionals from fascinating areas of medicine—including Nancy Dougherty, who developed a tiny bandage capable of monitoring heart rate, temperature and other things; Michael O'Reilly, an anesthesiologist who's developed noninvasive patient-monitoring technologies; and Ravi Narasimhan, a specialist in machine learning and biomedical algorithms, among other things.

Apple executives have also taken meetings with the Food and Drug Administration, which suggests it's interested in more than just apps to take to the gym.

Recently, citing a health executive who asked not to be named, Reuters reported that Apple's aspirations go beyond wearable devices, and that the company is planning a "full health and fitness services platform modeled on its apps store."

What's the potential outcome of what Apple reportedly has planned?

"There's a very large opportunity for health monitoring," Angela McIntyre, a Gartner research director, told eWEEK. "As we get older, we want to monitor our health more—our heart rate, our blood pressure. … If we look at the opportunity in terms of the number of people who are interested in monitoring their heart rates … it's more than 100 million in the U.S. and Europe alone."

McIntyre said she expects that people will take more ownership of tracking their own data and will have a profile on themselves, but that integrating that information with the health community is tricky.

"People will begin tracking this information and will want to share it with their doctors, but, at least in the United States and Canada, they can't use that information to provide a diagnosis. There are regulatory hurdles," she said.

There are various ways an Apple platform could serve as a hub of sorts for the kind of data people have begun keeping track of, she added. "We could all have an account and be part of an Apple community … get information about healthier living, connect with people who have similar goals or health concerns. That's a huge opportunity," she continued, noting that it's already happening in smaller ways. The TV show The Biggest Loser, for example, has a very successful online community of people sharing health tips or goals.

She also noted that in Japan, which has a large elderly population, Fujitsu has a phone that offers health care tracking and wellness assistance. But as for Apple in the United States, "I think they'll target health and wellness," said McIntyre.

She continued, "I don't think they'll focus specifically on health care but let that happen more organically. Apple doesn't do nearly as much as Microsoft or Google to target their devices to integrate with traditional enterprise IT. They focus on the consumer and let other people make it more applicable to the enterprise."

Skip Snow, a senior analyst with Forrester, said the idea that Apple could do for health care what it did for entertainment is "almost ridiculous."

Apple's Health Care Prospects Intrigue Industry Observers

"I didn't say entirely ridiculous; I said almost ridiculous," added Snow, given what Apple is capable of.

He explains, "There's too much at stake. It's not just about purchasing decisions, which Apple is very good at, it's about workflow and intervention management. In order to change a human being's behavior, you have to have data and you have to give them a workflow in which they can act—that's the job of the app."

Today, there are likely well over 40,000 health care apps from companies such as IMS Health, Aetna, UnitedHealthcare and Social Wealth—companies used to dealing with formularies, Snow said.

Apple would face two primary challenges, Snow said. The first is a curation problem—it would need to separate apps that consumers can use on their own from ones that require professional monitoring. On this front, Apple would be competing with some very experienced companies.

The other issue, Snow said, is a hardware problem. Currently, wearables that transmit health data rely on Bluetooth, which is a battery drainer.

"If Apple were to build a low-power transmission protocol into their platform, they would become the platform for wearable devices," said Snow.

Still, it's clear Apple is making significant moves in this space, Snow continued, "though that doesn't mean that Apple is going to become the go-to health care platform for consumers."

That said, Snow added, "The other side of the equation is, if anyone can do it, Apple can. IMS is doing it in a B2B manner, not B2C. … Given Apple's ability to create engaged, loyal users, they have as good a shot as anyone and shouldn't be taken lightly."

Follow Michelle Maisto on Twitter.

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