The Apple Watch officially arrives today, packed with sensors and software to quantify your every footstep. But measured against Apple’s big ambitions for the future of medicine, the Watch is still a rudimentary device. And for Apple to revolutionize health, it needs far more than a bauble-sized computer.
Apple recognizes this, of course. That’s why it has launched HealthKit and ResearchKit, two platforms for building medical apps. (HealthKit lets developers access data stored in the Health app, and ResearchKit is aimed at apps collect data for medical research.) It has also partnered with Epic—the titan of electronic healthcare records—to get HealthKit data right into your medical record.
All this backend stuff is far less sexy than, say, gold bracelets for celebrities, but it paves the way for Apple to become the shepherd of your medical data. (You know, if you’re okay with that.)
That brings us to the Apple Watch, the newest consumer-facing end of Apple’s health data pipeline. And here, things still fall short.
The Apple Watch is many things, and as a fitness tracker, it appears to be fine. Just fine by our current standards, which is not great by medical standards. As good as existing fitness trackers may be for people who like to graph their daily steps, they still don’t yield much medically useful data.
According to the WSJ report in February, Apple once had much greater ambitions for the health features of its smartwatch. Engineers were, for example, working on sensors for blood pressure and skin conductance. “But these features didn’t perform consistently on some people, including those with hairy arms or dry skin. Results also varied depending on how tightly the person wore the Watch,” read the WSJ story.
Those features were canned, and the Apple Watch can now only track movement and heart rate. There have also been questions about whether its optical heart rate sensor works accurately for people of all skin colors.
So the Apple Watch can’t track sleep. (It needs to be charged everyday.) It can’t track blood pressure or oxygen levels. And it can’t interpret data to give health advice, as that would run into FDA regulation territory for medical devices. Eventually, the technological and even regulatory limits can be worked out, but for now, the Apple Watch may be most useful as an intimate way of interacting with other devices.
Apple touts the Watch as a less obstructive way to stay on top of notifications that from your iPhone. But the iPhone is not the only device that send updates to the wrist. Imagine, for example, an internal blood glucose monitor that sends updates to the Watch. Or a breath analyzer for asthmatics.
In fact, medical-device maker DexCom does want to link up its blood glucose monitor to the Apple Watch, and Coheco Health is making such a lung-monitoring app. These are just a couple examples of how medical devices can become integrated into everyday use of the Watch.
The Watch’s Taptic Engine could also be a way to send gentle nudges: the pre-loaded Activity app lets you set goals about sitting and walking. WebMD’s Watch app sends reminders about taking pills. Apps with FDA approval could also give real-time medical advice. The step between an iPhone and a Watch notification might seem marginal, but the intimacy of a wearable could make a difference.
Not long after Apple announced HealthKit last year, hackers broke into celebrity iCloud accounts and stole nude photos. That might give you reasonable pause before letting Apple be the conduit for all your health data.
For now, Apple assures users, “When your phone is locked with a passcode or Touch ID, all of your health and fitness data in the Health app is encrypted. You can back up data stored in the Health app to iCloud, where it is encrypted while in transit and at rest.” And third-party apps using HealthKit are not allowed to store data on iCloud, presumably to prevent additional information like your medical record for accidentally getting put there. The Health app itself lets you to input activity, nutrition, and body measurements data—that’s a lot of potentially sensitive information in the cloud.
As the celebrity photo hack demonstrated, in which hackers stole or guessed passwords, iCloud isn’t vulnerable for lack of encryption. Collecting all that data and putting it in the cloud creates a potentially tempting target where there once wasn’t one.
Whether Apple can really keep your data safe remains to seen. What’s clearer right now is the Apple Watch is not nearly as useful for medicine it could one day become. But then, that’s never stopped people from buying first-generation Apple devices, has it?