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How Apple is using its watch to push deeper into health care

Anjalee Khemlani
Senior Reporter
Sumbul Desai, MD, Apple's vice president of Health talks about new features on the Apple watch during an event to announce new products Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, in Cupertino, Calif. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

With a boost from prominent organizations and new features on the Apple Watch, the tech giant is entrenching itself deeper in the health care space.

Largely overlooked amid all the buzz on Tuesday over the latest iPhone, wearable and streaming service was the fact that Apple (AAPL) announced three new research partnerships with some of the biggest health care organizations in the country.

The World Health Organization, American Heart Association and National Institute of Health are among those who are contributing to the tech giant’s push to expand into health research, touted by Apple executives as the largest effort of its kind.

The new research projects — which come after success with its first study, heart research conducted with Stanford Medicine — include:

-A hearing study, with the University of Michigan and WHO: examining factors that impact hearing health by analyzing daily noise environments through the Apple Watch.

-A women’s health study, with Harvard’s School of Public Health and NIH: examining the menstrual cycle and gynecological conditions to be able to determine conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome, infertility, osteoporosis, pregnancy and menopause.

-A heart and movement study, with Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the AHA: examining heart rate and mobility signals in relation to hospitalizations, falls, heart health and quality of life.

The above relies on the Apple Research app, also announced on Tuesday, to allow participants to opt into the research.

‘Great potential’ but will it pay off?

It is the first time a big tech firm is expanding into a health care segment that doesn’t focus on an entirely new product or software. The software already exists and the product in question (the Apple Watch) is already collecting the necessary data.

Allen Wilcox, scientist emeritus at the NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, said in a statement that there was significant implications behind Apple’s efforts, especially with the women’s health study.

“Studies conducted with commercial cycle and fertility tracking apps have great potential for making important contributions to science, because they can enroll much larger samples of women and from far more diverse backgrounds," Wilcox said.

"We want to do our part to make this new method of data collection a scientifically valid source of health information,” he added.

Sumbul Desai, MD, Apple's vice president of Health talks about new features on the Apple watch during an event to announce new products Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019, in Cupertino, Calif. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Adam Block, Assistant Professor of Public Health in the Division of Health Policy and Management at the School of Health Sciences and Practice at New York Medical College, said Apple’s foray into research is interesting.

“The Googles, Amazons and Apples of the world can provide [artificial intelligence], and having both access to data and enormous computing power,” Block said. Yet he pointed out not all health care initiatives by Big Tech have been successful.

For example, Haven, the highly publicized venture by Amazon (AMZN), Berkshire Hathaway (BRK) and JPMorgan Chase (JPM), formed almost two years ago, but has yet to make any headlines, or headway with its stated goal. Meanwhile, the initiative recently lost a top executive after less than a year.

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“I’ve been in the industry for 20 years and have heard some of this stuff before,” Block said, pointing to initial buzz over digitizing medical records that failed to live up to the hype.

“I would like to see action,” Block said, highlighting the industry’s vast size and local nature — with deeply entrenched players that make it hard to disrupt.

“I have been surprised that these (big) tech companies have not gotten involved in health care in a really meaningful way to date,” he said. “I keep waiting for it to happen.”

Anjalee Khemlani is a reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @AnjKhem




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