Last week at Apple’s yearly worldwide developers’ conference (WWDC 20221), Apple double-downed its commitment to digital health and keeping personal health information private.
Apple’s latest operating systems, including iOS 15 for iPhone and watchOS 8 for Apple Watch, offer an impressive range of health-centric capabilities.
These updates include much-desired features like the ability to share critical health data with family members and caregivers.
Apart from Apple users, practicing physicians from various medical and surgical disciplines are also critical stakeholders in the adoption of new technology into existing practices.
As part of our ongoing post WWDC Insight Series, we sat down with Dr. Tommy Korn to discuss how Apple is revolutionizing healthcare and wellness with these updates.
Tommy Korn, MD, is an ophthalmologist at Sharp HealthCare in San Diego, California. He has spearheaded Sharp’s many digital healthcare initiatives into various technologies, including Apple CareKit, Apple Watch, and iPads to improve patient care and healthcare processes.
The Sharp Health Companion, created by his team, was one of the first healthcare apps to utilize the Apple CareKit health platform to empower senior patients to prepare and recover from cataract eye surgery.
Here are some of the key insights from our conversation with Dr. Korn.
Your Apple Watch and Apple’s Health app are evolving into a personal health guardian
“Apple is approaching health from two angles: one is laser-focused on disease prevention (health wellness), and the other is focused on disease treatment (health “repair”). It’s by far more cost-effective to prevent disease than to treat it.”
For Dr. Tommy Korn, one of the missing links in delivering healthcare, especially preventative care, is a lack of consistent and continuous data presented in a meaningful fashion for physicians and their care teams.
Having health monitoring technology on the body 24/7 is the ultimate game-changer because it provides valuable data & insight for your physician that can be missed at 15 minutes in-person or telemedicine appointments.
By adopting wearable technologies like the Apple Watch, people can immediately fill that data void by using the health tech that’s built into these devices for things like monitoring their heart rate and checking for any irregular heart rhythm, assessing a person’s risk for falling, tracking sleep and menstrual cycles, and of course, recording activity and exercise.
To get this data, all a user needs to do is turn that feature on. Once it’s on, the Apple Watch and the Health app collect that data passively and store it securely on the user’s device.
“The most SACRED information for any human is your health. It’s more important than your financial data and anything else. It’s all about you. What Apple does differently than anyone else is they put you in complete control of your health information and how and when you share it with others.”
And the added benefit of using the Apple ecosystem is that all that data is stored and analyzed using on-device artificial intelligence rather than some remote AI cloud that you have no control over.
According to Dr. Korn, Apple creates technologies in an integrated fashion that harmonizes software and hardware, leading to friction-free, easy-to-use health experiences.
But they are mindful of protecting patient privacy by encrypting healthcare data at every opportunity. “Apple realizes the importance of physicians in providing curation of healthcare and its data for patients,” said Dr. Korn.
Users must consent to share their iOS healthcare information with their doctor. The healthcare team cannot access a patient’s health information without their permission.
This enthusiastic focus on upholding the user’s privacy while creating a user-friendly platform for both patients and doctors is what is driving Apple’s transformation of healthcare to new heights.
But how can we actually use that data to our benefit?
For Dr. Korn, it’s one thing to have data, but it’s an entirely different thing to interpret and use that data and filter out the noise.
That’s a gap that Dr. Korn believes Apple recognized and addressed in iOS 15 and watchOS 8 with these new features: Trends, Walking Steadiness, Understand, and Health Sharing.
Apple really approaches health from the user’s standpoint. There is a ton of collected health data and a lot of noise. Users get confused. Healthcare providers get overwhelmed. What Apple does is leverage its unique integration of hardware, software, and services to process and present health data in an easy-to-understand manner so people can enact lifestyle changes for healthier lives.
#1 Trends feature in the Health app
With Trends, the Health app scans your data and using machine intelligence, identifies any changes (for the better or worse), and also showcases consistencies to understand health trends over time better.
When it detects changes, it notifies you to decide if you need to take any action or follow up with your doctor.
Plus, you get notifications when your iPhone detects any new trends!
#2 Walking Steadiness score and its applications
With Walking Steadiness, your iPhone uses its sensors combined with onboard intelligence to assess balance, stability, and coordination and determine if you are at an elevated risk of falling within the near future (12-month window.)
If it detects you are at risk, you receive a notification. Then, you decide the next steps, from contacting your doctor to changing your exercise routines.
As Dr. Korn notes, “Apple watches can already contact 911 if you have an accidental fall. But now, Apple wants to predict when that fall will occur and how to prevent it. The walking steadiness feature may predict who may develop Parkinson’s disease, orthostatic hypotension, vertigo, or any condition that leads to falls. That’s a pretty big deal, especially for seniors where falls have a high economic impact on societal healthcare costs.”
There’s a huge segment of aging baby boomers and GenXers who want to manage their health and prevent serious health issues proactively.
The majority of the GenXers have had some experience with Apple products over the last decade, so Apple’s transition to support health will resonate with this demographics.
#3 A less talked about but critically important feature added to the Health app is what we call Understand
As Dr. Korn says, when you get lab results, you usually get a result on a scale with normal and abnormal values. But it’s not contextualized.
With iOS 15, Dr. Korn appreciates that the Health app now provides additional resources and education content, so you can understand what the test actually measures and what your results mean. This will be a huge deal for all his patients.
Understanding lab results really allows the patient to be in control. Apple wants to empower its users with easy-to-use medical information that can lead to meaningful change in diet and exercise.
There’s even an option to pin a particular lab result, so you don’t forget it when speaking with your healthcare team or caregivers.
This little nudge can be huge for people who sometimes forget how to access a report on their iPhone or iPad.
Plus, the Health app also offers a front-page tab for Lab Result Highlights that showcase your lab work results, compare recent lab results with previous ones, and showcase trends in your results over time.
So if there are any changes, you’ll know them right away, without having to dive into your health data.
#4 Share your Health Data with others
Finally, iOS 15 introduces Health Sharing, a feature long requested by families, caregivers, and healthcare providers.
This feature allows each user to share health data with caregivers, loved ones, or care networks and providers and is a game-changer for people with chronic conditions or acute, temporary health issues.
A person can share a range of health information from physical activity, heart rate, cycle tracking, sleep, irregular rhythm notifications, falls, other health information such as lab and other test results, vaccines and immunizations, and even glucose readings from third-party apps.
You can even share insights from Trends and Walking Steadiness!
Plus, Health Sharing in iOS15 allows each user to customize which data they want to share with others.
According to Dr. Korn, “asking the patient for permission to use and share that data is the key to privacy. Apple approaches it from the user’s (patient) standpoint, and that’s critical moving forward with these new features.”
What makes Apple different than other tech giants like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft is that Apple focuses on the user and puts them at the center of their health universe – they control who sees their private health information and how it’s used.That’s super important.Ask yourself this question:Who do you want to control your personal health information?
When users agree to share health data, caregivers receive notifications about a user’s health and review all shared data types in the new Health app’s Sharing tab.
And doctors and healthcare providers can see this information in their own health records portals.
We asked Dr. Tommy how does this help doctors? Are we not complicating things for the physician?
“Because Apple organizes and analyzes health data in an accessible and easy-to-understand way, I, as a physician, will be a better curator of a patient’s health journey. Human curation is of paramount importance with health data, and people still value their personal doctors.”
By sharing their health data, the individuals and groups responsible for a person’s healthcare get a more complete picture of their medical information. And thereby, can more actively engage with that person and even anticipate needs.
Another WWDC health announcement that went under the radar is the ability to record vaccinations in the Apple Health app. This is a big problem in society because proof of COVID-19 vaccinations cannot be verified digitally at this time. You have to rely on a paper card that can be lost or counterfeited. Having digital proof of COVID-19 vaccination on your iPhone would be an important step if we are to safely return to a close and interactive society.
And with Apple, all this shared health information is private and encrypted.
Apple supports the SMART on FHIR standard with end-to-end encryption.
So all data is secure and encrypted in transit and at rest.
Plus, this feature meets the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) requirements.
FaceTime for Android is a welcome addition
For Dr. Tommy and his patients at Sharp Healthcare, FaceTime’s Android support via the new create link option in iOS 15 is another great leap forward. By opening up FaceTime for Android, you can reach almost anyone with a smartphone.
According to Dr. Korn, “opening up FaceTime to Android patients is monumental. Our team of doctors at Sharp Healthcare has been piloting FaceTime as a telemedicine tool to connect with patients right from the start of the COVID pandemic.
We use many telemedicine platforms, but FaceTime is the one our doctors prefer most. Why? It’s easy and simple to use for both patients and doctors and encrypted end to end. There’s no email / SMS link, no confusing waiting room, no dropped calls like other telemed platforms – all of which lead to horrible experiences.
With FaceTime, our doctors dial the number and call the patient securely without compromising their personal iPhone number. The patient answers the FaceTime call with one screen touch when they see their doctor’s name appear on their iPhone or iPad. Boom! – doctor and patient are connected in less than 3 seconds! The care begins. How easy is that?”
For example, at the peak of the pandemic, Dr. Korn needed to get in touch with a 100-year-old patient for an eye emergency and using the FaceTime features to contact this patient was easy for both doctor and patient.
And FaceTime has the potential for really broadening the use of telemedicine for all types of health care providers, including those from smaller communities with limited budgets and resources.
Dr. Korn’s team evaluated various telemedicine platforms and is in the process of leveraging Apple’s FaceTime to build out other healthcare processes.
Apple’s new technologies and intuitive user experience should go a long way in helping people better manage their health.
Many seniors often get “hand me down” smartphones or tablets, from their kids. Unfortunately, no one really spends the time to onboard them and teach seniors how to use them. Everyone is busy.
Dr. Korn remarked that this is a cause of concern, and there should be a better way for seniors to be onboarded since they are highly motivated to use whatever means necessary to improve their health and well-being.
Under the leadership of Dr. Korn, Sharp’s team is excited about the future potential of Apple’s CareKit and HealthKit as they plan on unveiling new solutions to make it easier for patients to engage with them for healthier lives.
Are you building a career in digital health and medicine?
Given the momentum around digital health, wearables, and precision medicine, we asked Dr. Korn if he had any parting advice for young undergraduates and software developers who are contemplating a career in digital health.
“Spend some time with a grandparent or a senior and really put yourself in their shoes. See how they interact with technology. What health conditions do they have, and what health and technology challenges do they face every day?
Recognize the fear and frustration they have, especially as many live isolated, especially during the pandemic. Realize the things you take for granted when interacting with technology doesn’t come easy for seniors.
Once you realize these barriers, you will be in a fantastic position to develop friction-free health technology experiences that will make a meaningful contribution for everyone of all ages!”
We hope that you found this interview and insights with Dr. Korn helpful.
Please let us know if you have any questions or comments. And stay connected with us as we cover more stories and get more reactions from different Apple health-related stakeholders.