The device will be able to track medical and fitness data, including pulse rate, distance and an accelerometer. That ability to track data will pair with its new HealthKit app, which will debut with the new iOS operating system. The app can aggregate health data from various wearable devices, and store and send them to providers or other entities as the consumer desires.
Reports in advance of the unveiling predicted greater ambitions for the variety of health metrics the device would be able to track. The company reportedly had hired large numbers of engineers and designers from medical-device companies like Vital Connect, Masimo and Sano Intelligence. Industry observers who religiously track the company's product development speculated that the device might be able to track blood pressure, temperature and even glucose and hydration levels.
Tracking data is already something many Americans do through lower-tech means. A January 2013 report from Pew Research found that 69% of U.S. adults track one or more health indicators. Of those trackers, 49% say they store the data “in their heads,” and 34% use paper.
The idea of so much more medical data is compelling for many physicians.
Dr. John Halamka, the chief information officer of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, has a similar vision. He thinks the combination of HealthKit and wearables such as the Apple Watch will allow for healthcare systems to facilitate “continuous wellness” as opposed to treatment of “episodic sickness,” which will become increasingly important with the growth of reimbursement models that hold providers accountable for managing patients' health. “I think is going to radically change our ability to coordinate care,” he said.
Halamka, who was invited to and attended the Apple event, said the technology would have been valuable as he helped care for his recently deceased father from a distance and struggled to know what was going on. “I had no capacity to monitor his functional status as one of his key healthcare advocates,” he said. “I had to guess. I had to rely on interpretation of other family members.”
Multiple sclerosis is a condition where monitoring activity is very important, he said. With the combination of a wearable device like the Apple Watch and an app like the HealthKit, he might have been “able to track his good days and bad days and, with his care team, adjust medications and provide physical assistance, and to think about what we could do in the home to make his quality of life better.”
The HealthKit also holds promise as a new foundation for health app developers. Because the app will aggregate data from various wearables and render it into a common format, “developers can focus on cool functions for apps without having to worry about the interfaces or even the notion of different data standards for dealing with these [devices],” Halamka said. As a result, he said, healthcare systems will become more aggressive in creating their own apps.
Beth Israel Deaconess plans to build its own app that takes advantage of HealthKit and the Apple Watch to target readmissions of patients with congestive heart failure. The app Halamka envisions will track patient information such as daily weights, activity levels and pulse and notify care managers of any clinically significant variance.
But in spite of such enthusiasm for the promise of Apple bringing its consumer-friendly approach to tech into the healthcare sphere, some question whether the Apple Watch can truly nudge consumers into better health. For example, the Citi report includes a 500-person survey on desired features from the device, and finds that health and fitness ranks near the bottom in terms of reasons to purchase the device.
Dr. Joseph Kvedar, the founder of the Center for Connected Health with Partners HealthCare, said wearable devices have had appeal for sick people and healthy enthusiasts but not so much for the majority of people in between. Most people, he said, aren't “quantitative.” That is, “Achieving a number doesn't resonate with them. It's not the way they look at life.”
Apple, however, is famed for creating easy-to-use devices with unusually “frictionless technology.”
“It should have no user manual, and you should be able to pull it out of the box, use it, and it works great. Apple products tend to do that,” he said. “If this device has a lot of functionality for monitoring health and it's so easy to use that we can just ship it to people, and it connects with the iPhone that they already own, that might be compelling for us.”
After all, Kvedar said, Apple has a strong record for reorganizing industries despite skeptics' doubts, such as in 2000 iTunes and the iPod and in 2007 with the iPhone. “In both of those cases we had devices like that. They just weren't much of a hit.”
Follow Darius Tahir on Twitter: @dariustahir