Alongside the much anticipated final details on the Apple Watch, the company announced on Monday partnerships with several hospitals and related software to allow end users to participate in medical research through their iPhones. I’ve tracked a wide range of technology companies over the years as they’ve tried – and largely failed – to break into the healthcare industry and use technology to transform key processes. Many things have held these companies back, not the least of which is the heavy regulation which applies to healthcare. But one thing Apple has done differently has enabled it to breakthrough where others have failed.
From enterprise-out to consumer-in
Essentially, all of the healthcare technologies I’ve seen from various companies over the years start with some key process from the perspective of the hospital, the provider, the doctor or administrators, with patients often a secondary concern, if they’re involved at all. It’s usually about digitizing records, giving doctors apps to write prescriptions, installing new equipment in hospitals, and so on. It’s what you might call an “enterprise-out” approach to healthcare – in other words, it starts with the business end and works its way out to the patient. What Apple has done is turn this on its head by empowering the patients themselves to take their health and related information into their own hands, generate data that can be used in studies, and feed it directly to the institutions that need it. By contrast to the historical approach, this could be described as “consumer-in” – the solution starts with consumers and goes from there. By turning the traditional model around, Apple has broken through in a way few other companies have been able to and will make a meaningful difference as a result.
The base that sells Watches can also do good
Of course, ResearchKit wasn’t the only thing announced on Monday. The main event was arguably the Apple Watch. But it’s the very same base of iPhones (700 million sold, we were told in the keynote) that allows Apple to have high confidence of selling lots of Watches that enables them to produce a solution like ResearchKit. The only reason hospitals are willing to work with Apple is it has this massive installed base of devices which are capable of feeding them the kind of data they need. And Apple has the distribution mechanism in the form of the App Store to publicize and make available the applications which are at the core of the solution. I was asked by at least one reporter today whether ResearchKit would help Apple sell more iPhones and the honest answer is I doubt it. Yes, there might be some people with chronic health conditions who currently use an Android and who switch to be able to participate in a study. But this isn’t about Apple selling more of anything.
I’ve mentioned before I have a smart friend who’s also something of an Apple fan, who suggested last summer that perhaps the genesis of Apple’s HealthKit and related activities was Steve Jobs’ own health challenges in his later years. He must have found working with the healthcare system enormously frustrating and felt, as many of us do, unempowered throughout the experience. Think of how ResearchKit transforms the experience of someone who feels powerless because of a chronic illness, forced to visit hospitals or doctors’ offices frequently for tests and measurements, often themselves dehumanizing. I don’t think ResearchKit is about selling more Apple gear at all – I think it’s about helping to solve some of the more real and meaningful challenges people deal with in their everyday lives. The fact Apple is open-sourcing some of the software is another sign this isn’t about just reinforcing the Apple ecosystem. I suspect that, even if the spark behind all this was rooted in Steve Jobs, it’s Tim Cook’s more philanthropic Apple that’s making it happen in this way.
Apple’s partnership approach at work again
The other key feature of all this is Apple is far from doing all this work by itself. ResearchKit grew out of close partnerships with hospitals, doctors and universities. Just as Apple Pay was hugely reliant on partnerships with card issuers, banks, and merchants, and the success of iTunes was based on partnerships with content owners, so ResearchKit wouldn’t be possible without these other institutions. For all the criticism of Apple’s closed approach to doing things, it’s often its very willingness to work closely with partners that makes breakthroughs like this possible.
Just the beginning
Of course, I’m not naive enough to believe Apple has suddenly solved the world’s healthcare problems in one fell swoop. ResearchKit is a very targeted solution to a very specific problem, that of medical research. Much of healthcare remains hidebound and undisrupted by technology. But Apple’s consumer-in approach and the power of its installed base of devices could be helpful in a whole range of other settings within healthcare, with its current Health app and HealthKit tools as the foundation but with much more innovation taking place around them and around iPhones and their potential to track things. The Apple Watch, of course, also has great potential for being part of this picture, with the additional health data it captures. I suspect what we’re seeing is just the beginning of the transformation in healthcare that’ll be possible through the combined power of Apple’s installed base and the experts it works with to create solutions that start with consumers and the devices they already have.