Working with Apple every day, as Apple sees it, could help keep the doctor awayor at least well informed.
Apple’s push into healthcare is readying its second gear, and this week’s Worldwide Developers Conference is just the start.
Apple started its push into healthcare when it introduced the Apple Watch in 2015. The wearable device made fitness, and then health software, and then medical research, more central to Apple’s mission.
Since then, Apple introduced ResearchKit in 2015 and CareKit in 2016. The two open-sourced platforms, both included under Apple’s HealthKit category, let nontraditional developers without total coding expertise build apps for both medical research and consumer health. Projects so far have included an app from Penn Medicine for the rare disease Sarcoidosis, an app from researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to study postpartum depression, and even end-to-end encryption tools available to health apps on the platform.
This year, more of them than ever could be developers working in healthcare, helping to build Apple’s toolsand its growing reputationas a platform for medical research, health management, and caregiving.
There could also be something big in store for this year’s WWDC. Last month, Apple CEO Tim Cook was spotted wearing a wearable device that tracked blood sugar a sign of Apple’s continued interested in the healthcare space.
Apple likes to talk up its developer community. The tech giant claimed last month that it had created 2 million jobs1.5 million of which were jobs in the “App Store ecosystem,” aka not exactly working for Apple. A few days ago, Apple touted that developers had earned $70 billion through the App Store.
Apple won’t provide those kinds of numbers just for its HealthKit apps just yet. The company says that “millions of people” have used “hundreds of ResearchKit apps.”
But moving into healthcare certainly has an upside for Apple. Wearables and health apps give the company a foothold on a $2.8 trillion industryand access to more data from millions of consumers. It also helps Apple sell more of Apple’s core products.
“Their participation in the market is still fringe. It’s mostly about trying to make devices more attractive to people,” said Andy Hargreaves, an Apple analyst at Pacific Crest Securities.
Penn Medicine’s Sarcoidosis app represents exactly how Apple hopes its platform will work. Dan O’Connor, a medical student at Penn at the time, developed the app in partnership with Misha Rosenbach, an assistant professor of dermatology at Penn Medicine. O’Connor had taught himself a few programming languages and developed apps in the healthcare space before using ResearchKit for this project.
The app has had about 900 downloads and drawn about 500 consented participants for a study. Those numbers might sound miniscule compared to the reach of Apple, but it’s already one of the largest studies ever for the rare disease, O’Connor said. Sarcoidosis is an inflammatory condition that affects the lungs, skin, eyes, heart, and brain, and is diagnosed in 11 to 36 of every 100,000 Americans each year.
Through the app, researchers are studying both whether a digital study of a rare disease with patients spread throughout the country and the worldcan even work, as well as the disease itself. The app provides its users information about Sarcoidosis that their local doctors might not be able to give them and then asks them to take surveys about their condition and general health.
“ResearchKit, compared to what we were envisioning initially, enabled us to do more than we ever imagined we could do,” O’Connor said (in what is probably Apple’s dream blurb for the ResearchKit website). “Our initial vision of the app was very simpleto do mostly mobile and web-type programming, simple pages with information and a survey or two. ResearchKit enabled us to tap into data.”
Apple hasn’t revealed any of its specific healthcare plans before WWDC starts on Monday. Most of the conference probably won’t focus on medical research… unless it convinces more people watching to buy a new Apple Watch.
“The data is important, but it’s not important in the way it would be to Google, Facebook, or Amazon,” Hargreaves said. “The Apple business is built around making devices and software.”