The Apple Watch: Healthcare data gratification, delayed

apple watch
Credit: Apple

The Apple Watch is a sophisticated communication device that sits on your wrist, and calling it a watch does it a great disservice. However, the health and fitness features are at best works in progress.

I’ve been using my Apple watch for a couple of weeks now, and my views on the potential of advanced analytics using health data from wearables remain very optimistic. However, I have had to reset my timeframes for the full realization of the potential.

The notion of a “quantified self” through a wearable device that works as a health and fitness tracker is one of the factors that has been driving the growth of wearable device makers such as Fitbit and Jawbone. The launch of the Apple Watch was expected to take that much further, with a seamless connection to the iPhone on the one hand, and to the power of advanced cognitive computing systems such as IBM’s Watson platform on the other.

There is a compelling case to be made about what can potentially be done with the large volumes of data being thrown off by wearable devices, as the Internet of Things (IoT) phenomenon gathers momentum.

Coming back to the Apple Watch, one has to marvel at the design and the seamless connectivity to the iPhone. It’s a sophisticated communication device that sits on your wrist, and calling it a watch does it a great disservice.

However, I’m somewhat underwhelmed right now with the health and fitness features. Here’s why:

First, the good parts:

-- As a consumer health device, it does a good job. The fitness tracker allows you to log your miles, calories and steps in a variety of exercise scenarios, such as outdoor running, indoor running, stepper, elliptical and so on. I get periodic “nudges” from the haptic device that remind me to stand up and move around while I’m at work, and the activity tracker tells me how far or how near I am to my daily exercise goals. All good.

Now, for the disappointing parts:

-- Strangely, the fitness tracker does not seem to have an option for common fitness activities such as weights or yoga. It all gets lumped in the “other” category.  Considering how many people regularly do yoga or weights, not having an option to track the energy expended in these activities seems like a shortcoming.

-- I do not find any apps in the Apple app store that allow you to import your healthcare data from your primary care physician or your hospital.  The Health app provides an option to “import” files, but when I actually reached out to my primary care physician’s (PCP) office to ask if they could send me a file to import into the app, they told me there wasn’t one. There is, however, an option to try to manually add data on your vitals, body measurements, and so on. Its very unlikely that I, or anyone I know, will manually key in health records going back several years.

Up until now, physicians and other healthcare providers had to rely on medical histories of patients gathered from a handful of sources, mainly electronic health record (EHR) systems, maintained within individual physician offices or hospital systems. Wearables are expected to fill a significant gap in the story by enabling additional health information to be made available to physicians that provide a more complete view of a patient’s health history.

I have been anticipating with excitement the possibilities of advanced analytics available for consumption at an individual level using wearables data in combination with traditional sources of medical information. I thought the Apple watch would make that happen. Presumably, there is an application ecosystem that will emerge soon to make all the data available for everyone to view their own “charts” without having to visit their physician frequently. This scenario may not play out in the immediate future. For now, the Apple Watch is at best a work in progress, at least insofar as it relates to the potential for healthcare data.

In addition, as long as individuals use their devices and trackers inconsistently, it will be hard for individuals and their physicians alike to analyze and draw meaningful conclusions form incomplete and unreliable data.

However, that has not stopped at least one health insurer from offering monetary incentives for access to Fitbit data, so presumably there is some value in the data, even with its deficiencies. As data collection from wearables becomes automated, the data will become more usable and meaningful for clinical decisions.

A cautionary note in all this is that healthcare improvement through access to personal health data has to be balanced with privacy concerns. There is also an ongoing debate about who really owns healthcare data, with state law being silent in many cases.

Notwithstanding this, we are at the leading edge of a consumer and connected health revolution that will have far-reaching impact on how healthcare is delivered in our society. Wearables may just be the tipping point for this revolution.

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