Reports that Apple is working on a smartwatch—dubbed the “iWatch” by the press—have persisted for years, and in more recent months it’s been rumored that the device will include health and fitness features. News items from the last few weeks, however, suggest that what Apple is planning is less a gym buddy than a shake-up of the health care industry.
In mid-December, a team from Apple that included Bud Tribble, Apple’s head of software, and Jeff Williams, its senior vice president of operations, took a meeting with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“They are either trying to get the lay of the land for regulatory pathways with medical devices and apps and this was an initial meeting, or Apple has been trying to push something through the F.D.A. for a while and they’ve had hang-ups,” Mark McAndrew, a partner with the law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister told The New York Times, which first reported that the meeting had taken place.
In recent weeks, Apple has also hired at least four new employees from medical research fields. In January, Apple hired Ravi Narasimhan away from Vital Connect—Narasimhan’s LinkedIn profile lists “biomedical algorithms, machine learning and data analysis” among his specialties—and Nancy Dougherty from Sano Intelligence. At Sano, Dougherty worked on a sensor-equipped patch that looks like a kid’s tattoo but can monitor a host of vital signs, from glucose levels to kidney function.
MobiHealthNews has pointed out that before Sano, Dougherty spent two years at Proteus, where her bio says she developed an “FDA-regulated Class II medical device,” a Band-Aid capable of monitoring heart rate, temperature, respiration and more, and, among other things, ingestible “Smart Pills” that are activated in the stomach.
A week later, the same site reported that Apple had hired Michael O’Reilly, an anesthesiologist, pulse oximeter specialist (a pulse oximeter measures the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream) and the former chief medical officer and executive vice president of Medical Affairs at Masimo Corp., a global medical technology company that develops noninvasive patient-monitoring technologies. The company made headlines in 2012 for developing a painless, five-minute way to save the lives of newborns with undetected congenital heart defects by testing the amount of oxygen in their bloodstreams.
On Feb. 4, 9to5Mac reported that Apple had hired Roy J.E.M. Raymann, from Philips Research. Raymann’s areas of research, according to his LinkedIn profile, have been in “how to optimize rest and activity,” “non-pharmacological approaches to promote sleep,” and interpreting “ambulatory physiological and biomedical data.”
It’s expected that the three will join Jay Blahnik—a fitness consultant said to be a key player responsible for the Nike FuelBand, and who Apple hired in August—in working on the iWatch.
Sources have also told 9to5Mac that to complement the iWatch, iOS 8 will feature not only fitness-tracking features (steps walked, calories burned, etc.) but a “Healthbook” much like iOS 7’s Passbook.
“The application will be able to track a person’s blood pressure, hydration levels, heart rate and potentially several other blood-related data points, such as glucose levels, according to our sources,” the site reported.
Apple’s New Hires, iOS Rumors Point to Health Care Shake-Up
“The software is also programmed to allow users to enter details about their medications so that they could be reminded to take pills at scheduled times,” it continued. “This will likely integrate with iOS’s existing Reminders application.”
In short, Healthbook could be the way users read and interact with the data collected by the iWatch.
What Health Care Needs
Dr. Atul Gawande, writing (excellently) in The New Yorker in 2012, used the business model of the Cheesecake Factory to ask whether the efficiencies and protocols that make such chain restaurants so successful couldn’t also benefit health care—an industry with, from one hospital or doctor’s office to the next, tremendous variations.
Concluding his article, Gawande wrote: “Reinventing medical care could produce hundreds of innovations. Some may be as simple as giving patients greater email and online support from their clinicians, which would enable timelier advice and reduce the need for emergency-room visits.
“Others might involve smartphone apps for coaching the chronically ill in the management of their disease, new methods for getting advice from specialists, sophisticated systems for tracking outcomes and costs, and instant delivery to medical teams of up-to-date protocols. Innovations could take a system that requires sixty-three clinicians for a knee replacement and knock the number down by half or more,” he wrote.
Could Apple usher in such needed innovations?
Forrester Senior Analyst Skip Snow says the current “core problem” with linking smartphones to devices that can monitor users via skin contact is the overwhelming amount of power consumption required.
“If Apple is committed to solving the data transmission problem … they would really have a competitive advantage,” Snow told eWEEK. “All the other problems are basically solved.”
Still, were Apple to offer such a technology, plenty of new questions would arise.
“There are two classes of apps that communicate with health-monitoring devices,” said Snow. “One is a wellness app, which means you, the user, are responsible for stewarding that information, and the other is a health app, where the information is winding up inside a health record.”
In the case of the latter, he explained, there would be the daunting matter, for Apple, of establishing the necessary health care partnerships and ensuring regulation-compliant security levels, but also the opportunity for anonymized data to be collected and used for evidence-based medical research—and to encourage app developers to create of a host of health-centric apps.
The extent to which people are willing to compromise their privacy in exchange for the benefits that sharing their medical information can provide is very much still being determined, said Snow.
“I speak to that issue about three or four times a day,” he said. “It’s an understood issue in healthcare today.”