Blog Post

Will Apple Watch revolutionize health care? Three reasons to be cautious.

September 9, 2014

    Dan Diamond, Executive Editor

    Apple's heavily anticipated Apple Watch debuted on Tuesday, as part of the company's broader iPhone launch event. And some are expecting the new wearable device to emerge as Apple's latest must-have accessory, with as many as 60 million sales next year.

    Apple's counting on the Watch to be a lynchpin in the company's effort to move into the health care market. When the device goes on sale in 2015, it will include a range of sensors and reportedly sync with a patient's health records. That's gotten some industry observers crowing about Apple's potential to shake up the health industry.

    Given Apple's track record, the Watch may indeed succeed at bringing wearable devices mainstream. But don't plan on the Apple Watch to change health care—at first.

    Wearables in the health industry

    Apple plans to have the Watch collect health data—like blood glucose levels and blood pressure—and distribute it to hospital partners.

    On the surface, that's not a reason to get excited; those features are generally available via different wearables already on the market. But Apple brings special marketing and distribution power. Per an earlier Daily Briefing blog post,

      The "killer app"—the feature that could distinguish the iWatch—might be less the technology itself and more the name on the device.

      Essentially, Apple is a category maker. It redefined what we expected from MP3 players and smart phones. It brought tablet computers to the mainstream.

      By moving into the mobile health space, the company would bring new legitimacy and leverage relationships that current watch-makers just don't have. The iWatch will easily pair with Apple's popular smartphones, for instance. And it's expected to draw on the new relationships that Apple has struck with Epic and dozens of leading health systems as part of its HealthKit.

    There are a few reasons to be cautious about what the Apple Watch actually can deliver, however.

    Doctors and hospitals don't really know how to use the data—or if it's valuable

    Apple and its hospital partners are excited about the Watch's potential to send data directly into medical records.

    But for doctors, the data collected by wearable devices generally remains a novelty, not a necessity.

    Apple wants to centralize data from health trackers. But do doctors care?

    Consider that calorie counts and blood-pressure monitors don't significantly affect doctors’ ability to treat the most expensive patients.

    Apple's likely still working on the technology that would be transformative

    What would make a dent is if Apple somehow can use the Watch to achieve new medical-device breakthroughs.

    For example, if the Apple Watch somehow succeeds at “listening” to blood flow in order to predict heart attacks—just one of the most exciting rumors about the new device. Or if Apple has devised a way to non-invasively measure blood glucose levels, another highly touted potential application for the device.

    But barring a massive surprise, Apple's Watch likely won't debut packaged with any of its most anticipated technologies. Why not? Bringing a new clinical breakthrough to market would almost certainly require FDA approval and clinical trials … which we've heard nothing about yet.

    And creating a transformative medical technology that can fit into a device that sits on your wrist is a tall order for any company, let alone a firm that's known for personal computers, not personal health monitors.

    Skepticism around wearables

    Smartwatches have been available for a few years, but they—and other wearable wristbands—haven't caught on the way that smartphones did. One-third of wearable-device owners stopped wearing them after six months.

    Firms largely have failed at convincing users—save the most committed—to stick with the devices. It's safe to say that, so far, customers have gotten weary of their wearables.

    There's one key caveat: It's dangerous to bet against Apple. The company made smartphones hot and tablets cool, even when it seemed like the hype outpaced reality.

    "The iPhone is nothing more than a luxury bauble that will appeal to a few gadget freaks," Bloomberg News wrote in January 2007—more than 500 million iPhone sales ago.

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