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Apple thinks it has a 'moral obligation' to move into health care

June 9, 2014

    Dan Diamond, Managing Editor

    Here's how Apple currently brands its alliance with Nike: "Meet your new personal trainer."

    Who knows how the company will advertise its long-rumored iWatch, but here's one free suggestion: "Get a check-up on the go."

    Hey—based on everything we're hearing about the iWatch's capabilities, it might not be that far off.

    More news has leaked about Apple's latest device, which the company intends to pair with its new Health app and HealthKit platform. (Apple announced the new apps last week; see here for details.) And if the reports are true, they suggest that Apple is optimistic about the iWatch's sales potential, to say the least.

    Meanwhile, the FDA—in response to a Freedom of Information Act request—just released details of its meeting with Apple executives late last year. While the notes aren't overly specific, they do shade in what Apple's hoping to accomplish…and paint a very interesting picture of how Apple sees its role in the mobile health space.

    Related: Apple unveils new health apps. Will they change health care?

    Preparing for the iWatch

    A growing number of reports now suggest that Apple will unveil its iWatch in October, about a month after the company's new operating system is released.

    The device will reportedly collect different kinds of health data—calorie consumption, blood glucose levels, blood oxygen levels, and so on.

    If that’s all that the iWatch offers in the way of mobile health…well, it seems a little disappointing. All of those features are currently available via different oximeters and devices like Jawbone's bracelet, even if they haven't been rolled up into a shiny Apple product.

    But 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.

    (As Modern Healthcare's Darius Tahir points out, other firms have tried to centralize health data and share it with providers. But the combination of HealthKit, Epic, and an iWatch sensor could prove a huge boon for entrepreneurs—who suddenly wouldn't have to worry about the "data collection problem," Tahir suggests—and presumably, for Apple.)

    Below: How Apple is branding and positioning HealthKit.

    Those great expectations are borne out by the company's own rumored projections. According to the Nikkei Asian Review, which has a good reputation tracking Apple-related technology news, Apple expects to introduce the iWatch in October and produce up to 5 million units per month.

    If true, that suggests Apple is awfully optimistic about the market for the device: Monthly sales of the iWatch would exceed the total annual global sales for watch-like devices in 2013, the Nikkei Asian Review says.

    How Apple pitched the FDA

    Apple's aspirations seem to go far beyond a simple wearable device.

    The company has recently staffed up with new hires who have expertise in developing medical sensors, fitness tracking, and lobbying the government to work through the regulatory process.

    In December, the company even convened a high-level meeting with FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg and other senior officials—including Jeff Shuren, who oversees the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health, and Bakul Patel, who helped author the agency's guidance on mobile medical applications.

    What did they talk about? We didn't know…until now. The FDA's notes, which were released on Monday thanks to a FOIA request from a site called Apple Toolbox, reveal a few interesting things. Most relevant: that Apple is interested in learning how the FDA regulates certain devices, such as glucose monitoring devices.

    But the notes also suggest that Apple sees moving into mobile health as part of a grander mission for the company. From the FOIA request:

      Apple sees mobile technology platforms as an opportunity for people to learn more about themselves. With the potential for more sensors on mobile devices, Apple believes there is the opportunity to do more with devices, and that there may be a moral obligation to do more.

    Apple's potential impact

    It's possible that even more fanciful technology is coming—either to the iWatch this fall, or in a future iteration of the device.

    Earlier this year, a source told the San Francisco Chronicle that Apple wants to develop sensors that can "listen" to blood flow, identify whether arteries are clogged, and predict the risk of heart attacks. That's part of Apple's goal to move into health devices as a long-term market opportunity, the source suggested.

    But in the short-term, the company could super-charge the mobile health market late this year, bringing new attention from consumers and expanding the category. (The HealthKit platform has expressly been set up for open API.) Specifically, the company's products might enable developers to unveil a flurry of new programs and sensors that monitor patient health, with Apple presumably as the platform.

    And if so, there's another old Apple slogan that could end up being repurposed—this time, by health care providers.

    "There's an app for everything."

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