Apple recently quietly announced a small, yet significant, update to its health app, signifying a precursor to the future generation of consumers who will have more control over their health data than ever before. From Spring of this year, developers and researchers will have access to the Health Record API, allowing them to develop apps “that use health record data to better manage medications, nutrition plans, diagnosed diseases” and more. This comes following the news that Apple’s Health app would be integrated with more than 500 hospitals and clinics to give users access to their medical information.
These developments further demonstrate how important the health sector is for multinationals and how much opportunity there is for technological advancement, given the interests of big players such as Apple. And this is no doubt the first of many developments in the health space that will empower consumers with more visibility and control over their health data now and in the future.
What do these technological advancements mean for patients like you and me?
Better patient/doctor exchanges
To date, there has been an asymmetry of data and information exchange between doctors and patients. But Apple’s announcements present a significant leap towards empowering patients to take control of their data, which has historically been kept at arm’s length from them.
Think about an average visit to the doctor. You, the patient, tell the doctor about your symptoms: fatigue, loss of appetite and headaches. However, besides identifying these symptoms, you have little to no knowledge or understanding of your ailment – you are reliant on your doctor to analyse, interpret and diagnose your condition.
Now, for the first time, patients have access to their own health information. For example, the MyGeneRank can identify a 10-year risk score for a heart attack or other coronary disease based on a simple health questionnaire. A patient can now bring this information to the table when they engage with their doctor and discuss risk-management strategies through diet, exercise and medication.
A new paradigm for data ownership
Doctors have traditionally been the custodians of patient data, usually through an on-site server. But this approach has its drawbacks.
For example, going from one healthcare provider to another has often meant restating your medical background or taking pieces of paper with you from doctor to doctor – inconvenient to say the least.
The approach from governments, especially in Australia, has been to centralise health care data through platforms such as MyHealthRecord.
Apple’s approach is unique, as it effectively decentralises the data and makes it portable. Want to see a healthcare provider that you have not been to before (even in another country)? You have your healthcare data with you already.
There is also the added benefit of being able to join all the dots and have a better understanding of your complete health. Examples include nutrition and sports tracking as well as reminders, such as taking medications.
Health data is the most valuable currency
Healthcare data is extremely valuable which makes it attractive for businesses to obtain. At the same time, health data is also extremely sensitive and personal. So while Apple’s announcements signal a seismic shift where patients will become more empowered regarding their own health information, they must also be more vigilant and exercise caution to protect their personal data.
Specifically, Apple and other smartphone vendors will need to ensure that they are vigilant about the sorts of apps they allow within the App/Play Store to ensure health data is kept secure. The user will also need to scrutinise more thoroughly what personal data they allow to flow to where. It is often easy to blindly accept requests made by apps to access data, but the stakes are much higher with health data.
To illustrate, if someone hacks your device and moves funds around, that’s a nuisance and damaging, but is potentially reversible and recoverable, even if it takes some time. However, if someone hacks a device and interferes with, for example, medications and drug interactions, that could have devastating effects.
Apple and other vendors are already well aware of potential security loopholes and do what they can, but security is never 100%. While this should not frighten or put the industry off from innovating and moving forward, it should make everyone involved more vigilant.
Moving forward, Apple’s move is a significant step forward towards a new future of digitally-enabled, collaborative healthcare ecosytem. It also signals a major cultural shift in the way we think about doctor-patient engagement and ownership of health and wellness data. As with all innovations, but healthcare especially, user vigilance, education and caution is required to ensure optimised outcomes.