Apple's HealthKit App

Is Apple’s ‘HealthKit’ really set to revolutionise the healthcare industry, or is mHealth all hype?

Apple will be officially launching iOS 8 this autumn, and at the same time it will also launch HealthKit. This new health app will provide Apple smartphone/tablet users with a dashboard of their health and fitness data. They have also created a new API tool for developers which will enable other health and fitness apps to work together. HealthKit has already been integrated with Nike’s running apps and the Mayo Clinic app, which will allow blood pressure to be recorded.

Apple are saying that HealthKit is going to revolutionise the healthcare industry so is this all hype or can mHealth solutions in the shape of mobile apps really help to tackle some of the key problems our healthcare system faces?

New levels of patient engagement, as observed in many studies, are proving that patient outcomes are improved and costs reduced when patients are more involved in their own care.  And the advent and continued development of mobile health apps (mHealth) is responsible for driving that patient engagement.

Studies have shown that on average, people check their phones 150 times a day. Healthcare providers have now realised the potential advantage of this “addiction” to engage with people over health issues.

The birth of mHealth could be attributed in large part to Joseph Kvedar, MD, the director of Partners HealthCare’s Centre for Connected Health in Boston.  Since he first began to launch ‘connected health’ through technology some eighteen years ago, the landscape has changed dramatically. Kvedar started with telemedicine as well as dermatological imaging.  The camera he used at that time had less than 1 megapixel resolution, and was the size of the average shoebox.  It cost twelve thousand dollars. In those early days, videoconferencing capabilities cost fifty thousand dollars. Since then, technological changes have been dramatic, with the number of mobiles in use greater in number than landlines.  Other tools like Skype and Facetime make it possible to videoconference anytime and anywhere.

Kvedar’s centre was also the origin of the moniker ‘connected health’ in 2005. This was in response to the lacklustre enthusiasm that there was to the terms telemedicine and telehealth. The mobile revolution was taking off at that time and now, it seems inconceivable to think of developing any program that does not involve the use of mobile technology.

From that point the rise and rise of mHealth has continued.  It is now one of the most exciting prospects for the management and interaction of patients with health care provision that there has ever been. Along with the concept of meaningful use, another important factor that drives the patient engagement trend is the rise of models of accountable care along with payment restructurings. Under these accountable care models, health providers are responsible for the management of an entire population with payments based on results  (keeping the population well and getting them better) rather than a fee based system based on services provided. This makes providers even more keen to find effective ways of engaging their patients in the management of their own health, in between visits to the surgery

Before rushing headlong into digital patient engagement tools, however it is worth mentioning information inheritance and the way in which most providers still currently engage with patients in their care. This includes printed copies of health records, discharge instructions, simple diagrams or descriptions of exercises, medication timetables, and other instructions.  There is still reliance on phone call reminders follow-up phone calls and one to one conversation with healthcare providers.

So, while some of the expanding tools for digital patient engagement aim to be replacements for traditional channels, most aim to be a complementary or offer augmentation to existing channels of communication and contact.  There is no doubt that mHealth has advanced fast since the iPhone came onto the scene just over 7 years ago.  So, it will be interesting to see what impact Apple’s HealthKit is going to have on the healthcare sector and what health and medical apps we’ll have access to in 7 years from now.

Apple healthbook mock-up

Apple’s Healthbook app could make it easier for you to manage your own health

In line with the current trend towards health apps and wearables, Apple is due to launch their own app, Healthbook.  The release of the app is likely to be timed to coincide with the release of iOS 8.  It will collect and then organise specific information as well as data points that relate to the health of the app user.  Included in the app’s offerings is the chance to access statistics on fitness, delivered from the new M7 processor in the iPhone 5.  Other data will be collected from a new wearable device (the iWatch – rumoured to be a ‘smartwatch’ that acts as a small wearable computer worn on the wrist and synced with the iPhone.) The app will be preinstalled and will be capable of tracking data points such as information on things like blood pressure, heart rate, hydration levels, and has the potential to monitor other significant data for conditions like diabetes with measurement of blood glucose levels. Another feature could be the capability to remind the user of times at which they should take their medication.

Taking multiple user interface cues from the Passbook app, also produced by Apple, the Healthbook app has been developed to store such things as coupons and loyalty cards as ‘virtual cards’ removing the need for the actual item to be carried in a physical purse or wallet.

Apple's Healthbook Screen Mockup

Essentially the interface of the new Healthbook application is a virtual store of cards that can be swiped with ease. Each of the stored cards signifies a different data point for a health or fitness parameter. The logo for the Healthbook app bears a striking resemblance to the Apple Passbook icon.  The design of the Healthbook app, however, is decorated with graphics that depict vital signs.  Along with this new app, Apple are rumoured to be working on the design of their iOS 8 with the iWatch very much in mind.  Sources also suggest that both the iWatch and iPhone will be dependent on each other to a great extent to enable the health-tracking features.  It is thought that the iWatch will be able, in the same way as the Healthbook does, to measure health parameters that include vital signs such as heart rate etc.

An Apple App a Day Will Keep The Doctor Away

Although as yet the speculation as the launch date of the app is just that, sources do suggest that Apple have managed to combine several of the health sensors into just one chipset to keep the size as small as possible.

Recently, Apple has also even requested a few patents. According to one document filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the company is developing technology that could possibly unlock a device like an iPhone by identifying the owner’s unique electrical signals from the heart. And last year, Apple hired several health, medical, and fitness experts to work on these hardware and software projects.

None of the above comes as a surprise to me as Apple are looking at a number of new areas to diversify into to help re-ignite its growth and with the healthcare app development market set to grow to over $20 billion by 2017, I guess Apple want a slice of that tasty pie and with lashings of cream on top!