5 Reasons Pharma Should Care About Apple Watch

Written on Tuesday 31st March 2015

For months and months speculation was rife about the Apple Watch (or iWatch as was the expected moniker) and the possible implications and applications for healthcare. Then we had the 9th March launch event in San Francisco and the Apple Watch seemed to sink like a lead balloon in the minds of health technology enthusiasts. This was aided by articles such as the one in the Wall Street Journal that claimed much of the exciting health sensor technology had been scrapped and asked: What Exactly Is an Apple Watch For? (Subscription required)

The lack of enthusiasm among those of us working in digital healthcare was I believe partly due to coverage of this kind, partly due to the surprising and exciting launch of ResearchKit (software framework with the ambition to turn the 700 million iPhones and their owners into medical diagnostic tools and possible research participants).and also the consequence of the launch presentation itself, which was unclear about the Watch’s reason for being. Tim Cook’s first big launch event lacked Steve Jobs-capacity to explain how Apple Watch fits into the world. This lack of a clear position seems to have left people unsure if Apple had a strategy for the product or if it was more of a gamble.

I believe that technology only becomes socially interesting when it becomes technologically boring. We can only really impact health at scale when we utilise technology that has true mainstream reach. However I feel there are still a number of key reasons the Apple Watch is worth thinking about for healthcare broadly, and pharmaceutical companies specifically. Here are five reasons pharma should care as we approach the April 24th Apple Watch launch date:

1. Apple watch will be highly associated with health, wellness, fitness and personal data tracking

Although the Watch will take time to have the social penetration and reach needed to facilitate health innovation at large, it will be the device that launches with by far the highest association with health, indeed it could be the most powerful ‘reason for being’ for the Watch. A recent small survey indicated that 82 percent of people know that the Apple Watch has health and fitness tracking features. This high level of association will likely drive uptake of health applications and services with users and is a big opportunity for those of us designing and building health technology.

2. Apple Watch could dramatically accelerate the uptake of wearable technology

Whether people like it or not, when Apple get on board with a technology it tends to hit the mainstream. This is why I was so excited by the original Health launch in June of 2014. Wearable technology devices are seeing a growth surge that is likely to continue over the next few years and this will be accelerated by the Watch launch, according to industry tracker IDC. It is expected that some 45.7 million wearable tech devices will be sold globally this year, up 133 per cent from 2014. By 2019, the research firm sees volumes of 126.1 million devices, or an average growth pace of 45 per cent. This means the capacity for the utilisation of behavioral and biometric data in pharma technology projects becomes even more relevant and an even greater opportunity to improve patient outcomes and quality of life.

3. Advanced sensor technology

OK so the hype that surrounded the Watch sensor technology before launch may leave some people a little disappointed by the first product iteration. However we shouldn’t underestimate how sensor technology will enable the Watch to be the most personal device Apple has ever made. The information this device will process will make it the most contextual of computers. It will be on your skin constantly and will understand who you are via skin contact authentication, where you are via the iPhone’s GPS and what you are doing via gyroscope, accelerometer, and purpose built applications. It will even know how you are feeling (via biometric body monitoring technologies). Launch features includes heart rate sensing, activity tracking, calories burned and activity reminders. However we know from Apple’s engineer recruitment that they are working on blood pressure, blood oxygen, electrocardiogram (EKG) sensing and skin conductivity sensing. We can also surmise through the recruitment of engineers from what was C8 Medisensors that they may even be looking at non-invasive blood glucose monitoring. For those of us involved in mobile patient support design this could be nothing less than an exponential leap in capacity and we are already planning possibly utility in the key chronic disease pressures of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease and cancer.

4. Information in context

Health information is at its most powerful when in context. The Apple watch has the capacity to be the most personal and powerful computer ever because it can understand more about you in context and help to meet your personal needs. We know that straightforward ‘education’ and ‘reminder’ services are broadly unsuccessful in healthcare. This is for numerous reasons such as poor health literacy and the complex irrational human behaviour we now understand better through behavioural economics’. When we look at the applications already announced for Apple Watch we can already see the power of context with services such as airlines (delivering flight status updates, countdown to your flight’s boarding time, viewing your boarding pass), task management applications such as Things, contactless payment and applications that allow us to record things such as Evernote. Applied to health this could advise atrial fibrillation patients on stress levels in real time and track heart rate, it could recognise a diabetes patient is in a supermarket and deliver their nutritional plan and shopping list.In MS it could constantly record and feedback on six minute walking distance without need for activation. You could easily record COPD exacerbations and overlay the information with activity levels. Accurate sensor technology in the Apple Watch would also open up the opportunity of greater contextual information contributing to collection of real world data and clinical trials, linking with Apples’ResearchKit software.

5. Bringing the Internet of Things (IoT) into the health mainstream

IoT can best be described as the capacity for objects to be networked together forming a connected world. This can take the form of your fridge sending a shopping list to your phone, your connected thermostat sensing you have woken up and turning on the heating as your coffee machine gets your early morning brew on the go. Obviously for health this could have massive implications for connecting data sets and forming symmetry of information with health services. This could be heart, stress and sleep integration with support systems that feed directly into health records of a patient discharged after cardiovascular surgery or connectivity to health and fitness equipment authenticated through devices such as Apple Watch that forms access to medicines, such as in diabetes patient support programmes.

One of the key issues are how all these objects will link together. The Internet works because the World Wide Web offers a single solution that everyone can use, it has interoperability. Interoperability between various wireless and networking standards is still an issue for IoT and something that experts are trying to address. The fragmentation that currently exists cannot be completely overcome on a broad industry level through Apple and Android devices (that offer scale and ease of use for the man or woman in the street). However for the purposes of health the possible interoperability between devices, sensors, medical devices and data storage systems offers an exciting glimpse of what will be possible.

My passion for digital health and healthcare technology comes from a belief in the capacity for technology to democratize healthcare, helping to reach those who may not have accessed help before or who are the most disadvantaged. I also believe we should be focusing efforts on the practical solutions that currently exist, don’t be a ‘Futurist’, be a ‘Nowist’. On this basis the Apple watch could seem an unlikely candidate at this stage. I can understand those who believe we have fish to fry before Watch applications are prioritized for pharmaceutical companies.

However the Watch exists at a collision point between many advances in technology and society that could have significant impact on how we all think about health tracking, patient support and our interaction with health services. Pharma needs to be looking deeply at the trends even if the Apple Watch at this stage is an innovation too far.