Apple Wants to Collect All Your Health Information

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Steve Jobs probably never envisioned the impact his new device would have, nor did he ever imagine how many industries it would change.

One area of life that has remained largely unchanged by the advent of smartphone technology is healthcare, and it is the one industry segment that could benefit the most from the innovations that come with smartphones.

Sure, there’s Fitbit and all of the other health wearables, but they don’t give you nearly the robust amount of information a physician would need to make any assessment on lifestyle choices aside from whether or not you’re active.

But even that can be simulated or fooled.

The market for healthcare technology that takes advantage of our smartphones is there and it is expected to grow exponentially in the future as populations in industrial societies age.

And Apple wants to be at the forefront of it all by transforming your iOS device into a comprehensive medical records archive, making future doctor’s office visits and emergencies a much more manageable, efficient process than ever before.

Imagine a world in which all of your health information, your vital facts, as well as your current medications and intolerances was all available to a doctor with a mere sync of an app. In this world you would not need to wait for hospital records to be sent over nor would there be any question as to a patient’s past medical history.

In essence, it would generate efficiencies that would both streamline the process and make the healthcare industry more accessible. Apple envisions just such a day and they hope to use the technology they’ve developed for their iOS devices to lead the way. While Apple has toyed with some healthcare applications in the past, this is their first major push into the health records and data transmission sector.

If successful, Apple’s efforts could transform healthcare as we know it, and for the better if the California company is to be believed.

Sure, Apple Watch offers a range of health features and some apps for the iPhone also do the same, but nothing quite compares to the seriousness of medical records and how important it is that they be accurate. Doctors and hospitals across the country, and, indeed, the world, rely upon these documents to be timely and up-to-date, but they also need them as soon as possible. These two requirements often lead to error in the real world, and that’s error that Apple wants to eliminate.

As part of iOS 11.3, Apple is launching a new health service as part of its Health app that will collate a patient’s medical history and store it inside the Health Records section of the app.

The Silicon Valley tech giant is partnering up with a number of major hospitals across the country to make this happen, one of its biggest moves in the health space in years. By working closely with healthcare providers, Apple hope to gain valuable insights into how people on-the-ground operate as opposed to the theory of ubiquitous data.

Approaching it from the perspective of a healthcare provider while seeking to improve the patient’s subjective experience are two dueling concerns that Apple is masterful at handling. Not only is Apple uniquely adept at seeing things not as they are but how they should be, it is also cognizant of the need to get buy-in from current practitioners. That’s why everything about the new Health app seems immediately familiar and accessible.

A beta version of iOS 11.3 was released January 24 and should be available as a download for iPhone users soon even though it will be in beta testing for some time.

Health Records will be a new menu options within the Health App and patients will be able to add any document to this section as long as it is in the standard clinical document architecture (CDA file). Typically hospitals email these files to patients or make them available through a hospital website database. It is Apple’s hope that this process can become fully automated in the future.

The Health Records section of the Health app is based on Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR), a standard format when it comes to data and APIs. This will enable hospitals to push the data to your phone. Users should receive a text message alerting them of this action and the data is entirely encrypted so your health information is safe from prying eyes. It all starts with a user opening the iPhone health app, selecting the health records section, and then adds a healthcare provider.

COO Jeff Williams tells CNBC that “Apple doesn’t see the data unless the consumer chooses to share it” and that principle will be what governs the app’s design in future iterations. “We view the future as consumers owning their own health data,” he said.

The app’s information section also seems quite robust, with sections for allergies, medications, immunizations and lab results. This automatic feed of data could be particularly useful for patients who monitor things such as their cholesterol as the data is automatically updated. The latest updates to your health information appear at the top of the cascading list.

Patient advocates and regulation officials have wanted data-sharing standards within the medical sector for years because it makes the process of treating patients easier, more efficient, and more effective. No more guessing games, no more need to wait on a patient’s health file – it’s all there, right in the app. The lack of efficient, fast communication between hospitals often leads to delayed treatment and, in worst case scenarios, could lead to medical errors.

Apple has worked very closely with Epic Systems, Cerner and AthenaHealth to refine their process and get firsthand feedback from major players in the field. Kevin Lynch, Apple’s vice president of technology praised medical records vendors saying that they “have been an enabling, and not a blocking factor, and we appreciate that.”

One of the biggest obstacles Apple faces is getting hospitals to adopt the Health Records technology. Some may be wary to do so because of privacy concerns while others may be wary of a potential cost outlay involved if they don’t currently have the equipment necessary for the job.

Apple hopes to get the technology to a stage where healthcare providers and hospitals can sign themselves up to use the service and not have to go through a company representative.

Many analysts think Apple is poised to take advantage of the various synergies offered by its devices and software. While the Apple Watch was primarily marketed as a companion piece to the iPhone, its increased set of health features make it a formidable force in the health wearables market. The Apple Watch tracks a user’s heart health, among other things, and provides reams of data about a person’s daily activity levels – information that could be of critical importance to a healthcare provider.

The technology could be particularly useful for patients with multiple chronic conditions as it would put all of their vital information in one easy-to-access location.

Apple’s digital health lead Sumbul Desai, a physician and former employee of Stanford said “we’re hoping to enable richer conversations between doctor and patient.”

Other efforts by major tech firms such as Google with their Google Health initiative have failed. Where they have not succeeded, Apple hopes to create a market.

Apple’s key competitive advantage in this area is the speed with which they can transmit data to a user.

Apple Chief Operating Officer Jeff Williams said: “It’s difficult to think about something more significant than health records…With your banking records, you can see every transaction and dollars spent, and yet my health is way more significant and I couldn’t put my finger on any of my lab information.”

The following hospitals across the United States are participating in the beta test:

Johns Hopkins Medicine – Baltimore, Maryland
Cedars-Sinai – Los Angeles, California
Penn Medicine – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Geisinger Health System – Danville, Pennsylvania
UC San Diego Health – San Diego, California
UNC Health Care – Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Rush University Medical Center – Chicago, Illinois
Dignity Health – Arizona, California and Nevada
Ochsner Health System – Jefferson Parish, Louisiana
MedStar Health – Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia
OhioHealth – Columbus, Ohio
Cerner Healthe Clinic – Kansas City, Missouri

After the conclusion of beta testing Apple expects to roll out the program on a more globalized basis. While there will certainly be hiccups along the way, there’s little doubt that Apple’s efforts, if successful, could pay huge dividends for the company down the road by making it the go-to advice for patients seeking medical treatment.

But further Apple’s efforts will also improve the healthcare system for the vast majority of patients. Increased efficiencies coupled with accuracy can do nothing but good for the healthcare system which in many countries is constantly under strain. Apple’s attempts to remove that stress and streamline the process should go a long way towards making iOS the OS for healthcare.

Article exclusively provided for by Keith Lutz

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Dr. Jimmy Obaji M.D.

Dr. Jimmy Obaji completed his residency in Family Medicine at the University of Manitoba. He currently operates a walk-in-clinic in downtown Toronto.

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