Why wait for an appointment at your local NHS surgery when you can simply check your phone or watch? Apple has debuted the iPhone 6, which includes its new Health app and associated tool for developers called HealthKit. The software enables other health and fitness apps to share their data with the Health app and with each other. The app is also integrated into the new Apple Watch and could potentially monitor everything from the user’s heart rate to his or her chronic conditions.
Apple’s choice of fitness partner for HealthKit, Nike, has long been working on a wearable health gadget. So have several other health and tech companies, with Fitbit and Wahoo Fitness among those already selling wristbands and watch-like devices targeted at runners. But HealthKit goes much further, measuring not just the user’s health but his or her illnesses as well. Which explains why the respected healthcare giant Mayo Clinic has become a HealthKit partner.
“When a patient takes a blood pressure reading, HealthKit automatically notifies their app”, said Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice-president of software engineering, when he introduced HealthKit this summer. “And their app is automatically able to check whether that reading is in that patients’ personalised healthcare parameters threshold. And if not, it can contact the hospital proactively, notify a doctor, and that doctor can reach back to that patient, providing more timely care.” HealthKit will, in other words, act as a nurse of sorts, checking on illnesses and vital signs and notifying a doctor if anything is amiss.
Apple is not the only player in the market. Intel and the Michael J Fox Foundation have developed a similar wearable healthcare gadget that will track Parkinson’s disease. Couples struggling with infertility can turn to the wearable app DuoFertility, which continuously monitors physical parameters, collecting up to 20,000 data points every day and transmitting them to a wireless reader. Based on these data points, the app will inform the couple when they should try to conceive. And, DuoFertility’s CEO, Dr Claire Hooper, says the company plans to develop applications for sleep and pain problems as well. Another company, Valencell, has developed earbuds that monitor vital signs.
Still, for all the excitement, wearable healthcare is still a small market. “Dedicated wearable healthcare gadgets – as distinguished from fitness trackers – will absolutely find mainstream application among those with chronic illnesses like diabetes, high blood pressure and so on,” predicts Jeff Yang, senior vice-president at The Futures Company, a planning consultancy. Especially given the growing number of people worldwide suffering from such diseases, that’s not a negligible number of potential buyers. But, notes Jack Kent, a mobile analyst at IHS, “From the consumer perspective, the wearable app business is still a very niche market. A lot of the effort so far, alongside more general-purpose smartwatches, has been focused on specific niches such as fitness tracking and health and wellness.”
Although health apps record plenty of data, there’s no central system in place (such as at medical centres), for collecting, let alone evaluating, the information submitted by potentially several hundred million iPhone users. “If, for example, diabetics collect their blood measurements over three weeks and bring the figures to their doctor, it’s useful”, says Dr Satish Misra, a clinical fellow in cardiology at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, who also works on Johns Hopkins’s Global mHealth Initiative. “But without a system for dealing with the information these gadgets collect, they’ll be a waste of doctors’ time and users’ money.”
Still, notes Misra, releasing the gadgets on the market could be a good thing, as early adopters force healthcare providers to create a system for processing the information. Clinics and hospitals will, he predicts, choose to accept only a couple of devices so as to prevent potentially enormous waste of doctors’ time.
But there is an immediate concern: according to a test conducted by Symantec, wearable healthcare gadgets leak users’ data: 20% of the gadgets monitored transmitted users’ credentials, including login details in clear text. And attempts to hack healthcare data have increased dramatically in the past few years. According to a report by the firm Websense this month, hacking attempts on US hospitals have increased by 600% over the past 10 months.
Security concerns aside, will consumers embrace wearable healthcare gadgets? “My sense is that they won’t”, says Yang, “Dedicated fitness trackers have already begun to plateau. Multipurpose, multi-use devices like the Apple Watch are inevitably going to take over many of those categories.” Such integration of a myriad of services into a single device, predicts Yang, is the answer: “You don’t have to extend your personal area network with another tool that you need to carry, update, charge, and try not to misplace.”
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