Big Tech: Is Apple’s Healthcare Confidence Justifiable?

A few months ago, Apple CEO Tim Cook made an amazing claim.

During his September appearance on CNBC’s Mad Money, he suggested that while Apple’s hardly going to stop doing other things, healthcare may represent the brass ring. “If you zoom out into the future, and you look back, and you ask the question: ‘What was Apple’s greatest contribution to mankind?’ it will be about health,” he said.

This isn’t coming completely from left field. According to Cook, on a trailing basis Apple’s revenue from wearables is already 50% more than iPod revenues at their peak. That’s a pretty serious business by even the biggest tech company’s standards, and while it’s obviously facing massive competition in the wearables space, it has room to grow as well.

In fact, Apple has had its eye on the healthcare business for several years. Back in 2014, it launched CareKit and ResearchKit, which made it easier for providers to pull together patient-generated data. There’s also the very visible Apple Watch, which at 22.5 million units shipped accounted for just over half of the 45 million smartwatches sold in 2018.

More recently, the Apple Health Records effort has begun signing up providers willing to make patient health records accessible to the Health app on the iPhone and Watch. Providers that have come on board range from giants like Geisinger and Adventist Health System to solo medical practices. The Health app allows patients to aggregate health records from providers alongside of the data they’ve generated on their own.

Where is Apple going with all of this? Generally speaking, its leadership seems to be convinced that if it becomes a trusted data sharing partner for providers and consumers, and helps both sides accomplish what they want, Apple will be able to capitalize on this to become a fixture in the healthcare business.

However, I’m not convinced that they’re right.

One obstacle: since it doesn’t provide enterprise-level technology to hospitals and clinicians, Apple has no pre-existing constituency in health IT departments. Though it has made efforts to make the data it collects easily sharable using FHIR APIs, it offers neither infrastructure nor tools that will help providers with key functions like analytics. This deprives it of the natural allies it might otherwise have among health IT execs.

Perhaps more importantly, Apple may be ahead of the healthcare market. Though it began life as a legendary desktop computer manufacturer, the company is now centered on its amazing mobile devices, from iPhones to Apple Watches, AirPods to Macbooks. Their mission is clearly to support consumers who compute everywhere they go and leverage their smart devices to the fullest along the way.

Most providers haven’t reached that stage, though. While healthcare IT leaders are well aware of the benefits of implementing a smart mobile strategy, I’d argue that few are ready yet to base their plans on data gathered at the network’s edge by consumers, particularly given that the reliability and validity of this data can vary significantly from one device to another.

Of course, as providers steadily base their business on mobile-friendly services like remote monitoring and telehealth, they’re likely to find Apple’s mobile-first approach to be tempting. Also, as Apple continues to sharpen its understanding of healthcare IT issues, it will be a better potential partner. The two sides are likely to meet in the middle soon.

Until then, though, it will take more than lofty predictions to convince me that Apple is ready to make a unique contribution to healthcare.

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.