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Meet ‘Healthbook’—Apple’s first big venture into health care

March 18, 2014

    Dan Diamond, Managing Editor

    Apple transformed portable music players. It redefined what we expect from cell phones. It brought tablet computing to the masses.

    Is the company planning to do the same for mobile health?

    Some industry watchers think so.

    "Apple has found its next market ripe for reinvention," Mark Gurman wrote on Monday at 9to5mac.com, teasing new screenshots of an app—known as "Healthbook"—that's intended to be a centralized platform for fitness tracking, emergency information, and even blood monitoring.

    I've pasted a pair of those screenshots below, via 9to5mac.com.

    This isn't a small venture. Apple executives suggest that Healthbook is being positioned as perhaps the key selling point when the company releases its next operating system for iPhone, likely later this year. And the app also may pair with a new "iWatch" that's under development and will contain biometric sensors.

    In his lengthy post, Gurman further details how Healthbook is expected to work. Its interface is "largely inspired" by an existing iPhone application called Passbook, which is intended to centralize a user's boarding passes, loyalty coupons, and so on in one place. Beyond fitness and diet, the app also has sections devoted to tracking physical activity, our sleeping habits, and hydration.

    And Healthbook will offer blood monitoring features—"perhaps the most unique and important elements of the application," Gurman writes—although it's unclear exactly what it will track beyond oxygen saturation and glucose levels.

    App's appearance not unexpected

    The long-awaited screenshots of Healthbook follow months of reports that Apple's readying a push into the health care space. While the company's interest in the sector is nothing new—I feel like we've spent years covering its health-related innovations—Apple's recent focus has been much more discrete.

    • For example, the company has been exploring an intriguing question: Can the sound of blood flow predict heart attacks? This isn't a hypothetical; the San Francisco Chronicle reported last month that Apple is trying to develop software and devices that listen to blood as it flows through clogged arteries. (Noted audio pioneer Tomlinson Holman is leading the way.)
    • Apple has made a flurry of new hires with expertise in developing medical sensors and fitness tracking.

    The company is gearing up to navigate the regulatory side of health care, too. Apple has hired several lawyers with experience lobbying the FDA, and the firm held a low-profile meeting with the agency (although with high-powered attendees) in December to discuss mobile medical applications. It's unclear exactly what Apple wanted from FDA, but lawyer and industry analyst Mark McAndrew thinks there were two likely scenarios.

    "They are either trying to get the lay of the land for regulatory pathways with medical devices and apps and this was an initial meeting," McAndrew told the New York Times, "or Apple has been trying to push something through the FDA for a while and they’ve had hangups."

    Considerations and looking forward 

    It's important to remember: Not every Apple product lives up to the advance hype. The company's much-ballyhooed AppleTV hasn't changed how we watch television; Apple Maps was so bad, CEO Tim Cook issued an unprecedented apology.

    Alternately, the company's apps may work fine, but have problems attracting a mass following. For example, my iPhone is equipped with Passbook—and at least for me, the app hasn't revolutionized how I track my passes and coupons. In fact, I hardly even knew it was on my iPhone. (To avoid a conclusion based on an N of 1, I asked a number of coworkers with iPhones; just one of seven used Passbook.)

    And many of Healthbook's more promising features aren't exclusive to Apple. Several popular mobile apps and devices on the market from firms like Jawbone already offer similar services. Meanwhile, tech firms like Google and Microsoft have generally failed to reach their healthy ambitions, although some hospitals like Beth Israel Deaconess are excited about Glass's potential.

    "An Apple health care app would be a validation of the utility of all health and fitness apps."
    - Ryan Tate, Wired

    So why might Apple succeed? Because Healthbook's promise hinges on Apple's typical value proposition: The app's ability to combine discrete elements in a user-friendly interface.

    “An Apple health care app would be a validation of the utility of all health and fitness apps,” Ryan Tate writes at Wired. “Just as Facebook’s success helped fuel the success of more specialized social networks…Apple’s entry into the ‘quantified self’ movement introduces the masses to ideas that can help them understand other, more specialized products in the same space.”

    And health care seems permanently ripe for disruption, whether from Apple, Walmart, or another similarly growth-oriented, out-of-industry competitor.

    "Envision a day in the not-too-distant future," McAndrew writes at Managed Market Access, "when a significant portion of relevant and actionable patient data is not generated or recorded by a physician or other health care worker at the doctor’s office or a hospital, but rather by the individual herself, in her own home, using mobile or wearable technology."

    From the archives: Apple and health care

    Looking to take another bite out of our Apple coverage? Here are three popular stories from the Daily Briefing's archives:

    • Steve Jobs: 1955-2011. How the Apple founder influenced health care, and how we covered him in the Daily Briefing.
    • WSJ: Entering the age of 'smart' devices. Medical devices designed to give patients control over their health—without the aid of a physician or nurse—are entering the market at an accelerating pace, the Wall Street Journal reports.
    • Why Steve Jobs was an 'iPatient'. Apple CEO Steve Jobs was a famously private patient, but a new posthumous biography sheds new details on his cancer care.

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