Will the Apple Watch Revolutionize Healthcare?

David Lee Scher, MD


June 17, 2015

Two Challenges to Mass Acceptance

Two issues concerning the Apple Watch for health care use are the cost of the device (prices on Apple's website start at over $500)[14] and the security of protected health information that the watch contains. Ten percent of consumers are willing to pay a significant price for wearables, but most prefer receiving such devices free from employers or insurance companies.[9] Why should these companies foot the bill? The thinking is that if outcomes are improved, it will ultimately cost these firms less to monitor patients by way of apps than not to.

In a survey of insurers by the management consulting firm Accenture, 63% believe that wearable technologies will have a high or very high impact on their organizations.[15] The biggest barrier to adoption of wearables cited by polled physicians is cost.[11]

Questions about the security of data collected by the Apple Watch have already been raised.[16,17] Apple, for its part, has stated that the company will be blinded to data collected via ResearchKit apps.

With the Apple Watch capable of monitoring multiple vital sign functions—in addition to functions a smartphone might have—the issue of battery longevity has been a topic of discussion among market watchers.[18] Battery life was discussed at the company's "Spring Forward" event last March. It was announced that the watch would provide 18 hours of battery life, assuming that it was used to check time, receive notifications, use apps, and monitor a 30-minute workout. Of course, ultimately battery life will depend on individual usage.[19]

Is Connectivity Here at Last?

I am inclined to agree with older doctors as to when a truly connected healthcare ecosystem is likely to be established: It will probably be later rather than sooner. Things move slowly in healthcare. That is no secret to anyone.

The real questions are: Will true connectivity ever happen, and will the Apple Watch be a game changer? It remains to be seen whether apps developed for the Apple Watch are better than other apps. Accessibility to EHRs, the data sharing capabilities of ResearchKit, or the prospect of greater market share might attract higher-quality and more established app developers or other businesses to partner with Apple.

The answer to true connectivity in healthcare doesn't lie solely with this watch. However, Apple's app-developer business partners could potentially make the Apple Watch the most impactful wearable from a healthcare standpoint.

IBM will be partnering with Apple. IBM's Watson is a tool that will take large amounts of data and use it to provide decision-making support for healthcare providers. Combining this capability with Apple's HealthKit will add significant functionality to the healthcare data that will be available to physicians. Partnerships with EHR companies will hopefully lead to the interoperability that we physicians have longed for since the adoption of EHRs.

App developers—including medical schools and healthcare enterprises—are eager to have their apps added to the Apple Watch library in the hope that they might be part of the changing digital landscape of healthcare. However, I believe that the success of the Apple Watch in healthcare will be closely tied to its success among consumers first. Such wrinkles as battery longevity, security, and cost will be eventually addressed. It is rumored that Apple will be asking insurers to subsidize the cost of the Apple Watch because of its potential impact on healthcare.

Be that as it may, I would make a case—as I'm sure payers would—that at least short-term feasibility studies demonstrating the effectiveness of the Apple Watch in patient engagement, adherence, and retention are needed before reimbursement for the device is considered. The success of the Apple Watch might help digital health technology companies that make other wearables, such as clothing or eyeglasses, to succeed.

That digital technology will have an impact on healthcare is a foregone conclusion. This technology already has made its impact felt in all other sectors of society, and leaders in the technology field are already looking to these types of tools to improve care. Whether the Apple Watch is the game changer in this regard has yet to be determined.


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