Wednesday 22 November 2017

Apple's Healthbook: Why iOS 8 and the iPhone 6 are likely to put digital health on the map

Fitness trackers are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to health data
Fitness trackers are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to health data

James Vincent

Predicting what Apple are going to do next is always a risky business, but with the case of the forthcoming iPhone 6 all the latest information suggests that the company is looking to get into digital health in a big way.

In the past year a slew of gadgets dedicated to monitoring and tracking our movement have hit the mainstream alongside apps that prompt us to manually enter even more data. Anything from what we've eaten throughout the day to daily weigh-ins can be tallied up and turned into graphs and suggestions for how to improve our health.

However, the rush to capitalise on this trend - sometimes known as the rise of the “quantified self” - has meant that the market has been moving forward in a piecemeal fashion: it could be Apple that takes the initiative and provides a home for all this information and thereby pushing the entire market forward.

Leaked screenshots of a "Healthbook" app rumoured to be landing on iPhones later this year show categories for such this sort of data - and more. Some tabs such as “Activity” and “Weight” could be fed by internet-connected gadgets but others (such as “Bloodwork”) seem like they would have to rely on professional health care workers for their input.

There’s also information that lies in the odd territory somewhere between these two poles such as “Oxygen Saturation” and “Respiration”. Measuring this data is beyond the capacity of popular fitness trackers such as the Jawbone Up or Nike’s Fuelband, but more specialist devices that can handle this info are slowly creeping on to the market.

These include the Wello, a smartphone case that can measure your blood oxygen as well as the electrical activity in your heart, and which comes with a plug-in spirometer that lets users measure their lung capacity and air flow and the Scanadu Scout, a gadget the size of a small puck that is most often compared to the 'tricorder' from Star Trek.

With more experimental hardware there's even more data to be collectd with even less effort. Consider Google’s smart contact lens that measures glucose levels through tears or the indigestible pill built by London-based firm Proteus - it would be powered by acid in the stomach and relay information to users' smartphones.

Most of these devices sound too fiddly and unintuitive to be something that Apple would create itself, but the iPhone-maker doesn’t need to be directly involved. If it was to position itself as a credible center for collating all this data (and presumably keeping it safe in the cloud) then its presence would boost the entire market.

The company has a history of tutoring third-party hardware companies with licensing programs that exchange technical support for products that meet Apple’s standards and with this sort of program both parties prosper: third-party companies get to put official “Made for Apple” stickers on products while Apple gets wider utility for the iPhone or iPad without the expense and risk of creating extra hardware. Indeed, Apple's official online store is already populated by dozens of healthcare products.

Whatever the company’s plans are in this area, it’s likely that they’re further from releasing a mainstream product than we think. Although the entire healthcare industry has become increasingly consumer-focused over the years, handling peoples' medical data is not something even a company as big as Apple can just take up over night. A Healthbook app for this year’s iPhone would likely be a first step, but the company's long term plans are likely to be much more ambitious than this.

Independent News Service

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