Apple’s Health Offerings Focus On Data Collection, Not Interpretation

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One of the major announcements in Apple’s iOS 8 presentation yesterday was the Health app and the HealthKit system that allows developers to feed data into the app.

HealthKit is being billed as a unifying force that ties the enormous amount of health-related apps on the App Store together. Part of the goal is to take the load off of developers who will no longer have to build custom tools to transfer, sync and collate health data in a repository.

Instead, they can integrate HealthKit into their apps to pour data into Apple’s holistic data-gathering app, Health.

Though there are yards of health apps on the store, most of them fall into a few groups. There are those that provide you with graphs or trends of, say, your weight or Body Mass Index. Then there are those that are focused on letting the user input data about their diet, exercise or other factors.

The third category would be apps from health providers that allow a user to choose, explicitly, to send their wellness data to a physician, health group or hospital.

The HealthKit system will automatically convert units, for instance, from one system to another.

Sixty different types of data like glucose levels, height, weight, blood type and date of birth can be recognized by Apple’s health system. Those are divided into things that are permanent, like the day you were born, and things that are sampled again and again, like weight.

Bluetooth heart rate monitors or step trackers in an iPhone are examples of the kinds of devices that can feed data into the Health app via HealthKit. No chatter, of course, about whether Apple is looking to feed data into Health with its own wearable sensor package.

Apple provides fine-grain control to developers when it comes to permissions, as well. This lets a user choose, very explicitly, the kinds of data that an app will share with Health. But it also offers specific, separate, permissions for reading and writing data. This means that you could choose to let an app send data to Health, but not read other types of data you don’t want it to see. And even the ‘read/write’ status of a particular type of data is masked from third-party apps, so that they don’t know what you don’t want them to know.

Given that health data is so sensitive, the extra attention to permissions detail is certainly welcome.

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Apple’s health offerings don’t stop at gathering data from third-party apps or via the motion trackers in your devices. They’re also partnering with two of the biggest repositories of health-related data: The Mayo Clinic and Epic Systems.

Apple’s Craig Federighi noted the Mayo Clinic partnership on stage during the keynote on Monday, which he says will allow patients to choose to share records and data with their health providers.

“[The Mayo Clinic] app is automatically able to check whether that reading is in that patients’ personalized healthcare parameters threshold. And, if not, it can contact the hospital proactively to notify a doctor, and that doctor can reach back to that patient, providing more timely care.”

The partnership with Epic Systems, as noted by Mobihealthnews, was also a major move by Apple, though not highlighted heavily in the keynote. Epic Systems is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, repositories of electronic health records (EHR) in the world. At recent count, Epic accounted for over half of all medical records in the U.S.

“We’ve just gone over the 51 percent mark. You take care of a little over half of the patients in [the US],” said Epic Systems CEO Judy Faulkner during an event at its enormous Deep Space auditorium late last year. Epic holds around 2.4 percent of the world population’s EHRs.

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So it makes some sense to have Apple partner with them, at least initially. There has been no word yet whether Apple will partner with additional providers, or whether health providers will have to adopt Epic Systems’ Health app-compatible format and records.

There are also some interesting questions raised here when it comes to how willing popular health apps will be to export the data they’re gathering into Apple’s Health app. The pitch is clear: users have a central repository which offers them a clear, concise reading of their biometric data.

But, as beneficial as this is for users of Apple devices, it also moves the focus away from the apps that are gathering the data and onto Apple’s app. So, depending on the business model of those apps, this could take eyeballs off of, say, in-app ads. This could cause a shift in the way that health apps are monetized on the store. In-app purchases that unlock more data pipelines to Apple’s Health app could become more common than methods of making money that require users to actively open these apps.

Of course, if an app requires user interaction to enter data, then not much will change here.

But this does fit into a trend group of ‘invisible’ apps that provide benefits to users without even having to be touched. If an app is a simple data conduit — then Apple’s system software like Health is providing the endpoint, the part that users see.

Apple’s Health app and developer-facing HealthKit tools are a play for coherence and cohesion when it comes to the fractured world of wellness data. But there is still not a lot of detail about how this data will be parsed to give people practical interpretations of what it all means.

That really is the threshold that any of the efforts to track and monitor our biological patterns will have to reach before they become indispensable. Apple’s approach, for now, is to gather the data and offload the interpretation to health professionals, which is guarded and probably wise at this stage.