The Doctor-Patient Health Tracker Data Dilemma

on September 5, 2014

In my column last Friday, “Why an iWatch is not Apple’s next big thing“, I pointed out I believed Apple is doing less an iWatch and more a wearable with a narrower focus around fitness and health care.

Of course it will tell time, but I suggested that, instead of trying to be all things to all people in a smartwatch, Apple would make their device the best health and fitness wearable on the market and use this to tie in to the bigger prize of becoming an important medium or data broker between the user and their doctor or health care provider. My feeling is Apple’s next big thing is tying the iPhone and an Apple Wearable to monitoring a person’s health and becoming a powerful mediator between the user and the health care system.

If you follow what is often called the mHealth and digital health revolution, you already know there is a lot of effort going into digitizing the world of health care and using mobile devices and wearables as on-person health monitors to record data that could be useful to a person’s health and fitness programs as well as their health care professionals. Unfortunately, today’s fitness trackers act as islands unto themselves and, in most cases, data is silo’ed and not shared across apps or with anyone else in the health care chain.

I believe Apple plans to fix this issue by aggregating content from fitness apps or fitness wearables that use HealthKit and, over time, play the mediator role between the user and their health care professionals. However, for this to even be a possibility. Apple has to do at least the following things:

Privacy of personal health data must be protected

The recent news hackers stole nude photos of various celebrities from their iCloud accounts underscores that Apple needs to make sure health data is truly private and can only be viewed by the user. While the hackers did not breach any of Apple’s iCloud based servers, they did use social engineering to get access to these celebrities’ passwords and security questions. While stealing nude photos is bad in and of itself, hackers gaining access to personal health data would be much worse. Instead of making dual authentication optional, Apple may need to make it mandatory and force the issue with their users to keep this from happening in the future. They are also going to have to work overtime to gain back consumer trust given what happened with these nude photos. 

Fitness tracking and health data must be accurate

Most of the fitness trackers I have used have varied in their data accuracy. Any Apple device would need to solve this problem and be as accurate as possible if they want to have any success with these products. Also, the user experience itself must be much better than what we have had with the fitness trackers on the market now.

Apple did not invent fitness trackers but, as they did with the iPod, iPhone and iPad, they have the opportunity to reinvent and make them a mainstream product. I believe Apple’s ultimate goal is to become a mediator of data between the user/customer and their doctors and health care providers and make it possible for data to be eventually sent to these professionals at the request of the user/customer. That means privacy and accuracy are critical to this product’s ultimate success.

Doctor and Healthcare Professional Training

I see two key issues or dilemmas when it comes to this data actually impacting any health care professional’s care of a patient.

The first is already overtaxed doctors are working long hours now. The idea of constant data streams coming from health trackers would be overwhelming. Long time readers know I am a heart patient as well as a diabetic and personally have to monitor a lot of things like blood pressure and blood sugar readings multiple times during the day. Thankfully, I do this via health monitors tied to my iPhone so a data stream is recorded and easily accessible to me. But my doctors want those reading too. When I go to my diabetic doctor, he downloads my blood glucose testing meter data so he can see what my blood sugar readings have been over a three month period. My primary doctor wants my blood pressure readings in the same way. What would make their lives easier is if data is collected and aggregated on my iPhone and, upon my approval, sent directly to my digital patient charts, perhaps on a weekly basis. More importantly, the data could also have alert algorithms that warn me and my doctor when these readings are out of whack and perhaps need some professional intervention. Automating this process could be a huge win for me and my doctors and help catch things early if all of this technology worked seamlessly and with privacy intact.

The second would be related to the training of professionals on how to use these self monitoring tools and data in ways that work for them and their patients. As I stated earlier, doctors are overwhelmed in their patient care practices now and while these tools could be quite important to their procedures, it will take some serious training efforts from Apple and related practitioners in the health care system to make this work.

It will be interesting to see how much Apple actually reveals of this strategy next week but I believe the signs are all there and point to a big emphasis on a wearable that has a strong focus on health and fitness. If so, the concerns I mention above need to be factored into anyone’s thoughts on the success of this product.

Side note — I am hearing this wearable from Apple might be actually modular or a module itself that can be put into different sized and colored bands that also include sensors in the bands themselves. If so, this makes sense. Giving users colorful and stylish options on the bands could be a lucrative addition to the wearable device itself and be even more interesting to a broader range of customers.