Apple’s Healthcare Data Plans Become Clearer

Posted on October 3, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Though it’s not without competitors, I’d argue that Apple’s HealthKit has stood out since its inception, in part because it was relatively early to the game (mining patient-centered data) and partly because Apple products have a sexy reputation. That being said, it hasn’t exactly transformed the health IT industry either.

Now, though, with the acquisition of Gliimpse, a startup which pulls data from disparate EMRs into a central database, it’s become clearer what Apple’s big-picture goals are for the healthcare market – and if its business model works out they could indeed change health data industry.

According to a nifty analysis by Bloomberg’s Alex Webb, which quotes an Apple Health engineer, the technology giant hopes to see the health data business evolve along the lines of Apple’s music business, in which Apple started with a data management tool (the iPod) then built a big-bucks music platform on the device. And that sounds like an approach that could steal a move from many a competitor indeed.

Apple’s HealthKit splash
Apple made a big splash with the summer 2014 launch of HealthKit, a healthcare data integration platform whose features include connecting patient generated health data with traditional systems like the Epic EMR. It also attracted prominent partners like Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and Ochsner Health System within a year or so of its kickoff.

Still, the tech giant has been relatively quiet about its big-picture vision for healthcare, leaving observers like yours truly wondering what was up. After all, many of Apple’s health data moves have been incremental. For example, a few months ago I noted that Apple had begun allowing users to store their EMR data directly in its Health app, using the HL7 CCD standard. While interesting, this isn’t exactly an earth-shattering advance.

But in his analysis — which makes a great deal of sense to me – Bloomberg’s Webb argues that Apple’s next act is to take the data it’s been exchanging with wearables and put it to better use. Apple’s long-awaited big idea is to turn Apple’s HealthKit into a system that can improve diagnoses, sources told Bloomberg.

Also, Apple intends to integrate health records as closely with its proprietary devices as possible, offering not only data collection but suggestions for better health in a manner that can’t be easily duplicated on Android platforms. As Webb rightly points out, such a move could undermine Google’s larger healthcare plans, by locking consumers into Apple technology and discouraging a switch to the Google Fit health tracking software.

Big vision, big questions
As we know, even a company with the reputation, cash and proprietary user base enjoyed by Apple is far from a shoo-in for consumer health data dominance. (Consider the fate of Microsoft HealthVault and Google Health.) Its previous successes have come, as noted, by creating a channel then dominating that channel, but there’s no guarantee it can pull off such a trick this time.

For one thing, the wearables market is highly fragmented, and Apple is far from being the leader. (According to one set of stats, Fitbit had 25.4% of the global wearables market as of Q2 ’16, Xiaomi 14%, and Apple just 7%.) That doesn’t bode well for starting a health tracker-based revolution.

On the other hand, though, Apple did manage to create and dominate a channel in the music business, which is also quite resistant to change and dominated by extremely entrenched powers that be. If any upstart healthcare player could make this happen, it’s probably Apple. It will be interesting to see whether Apple can work its magic once again.