The Apple Watch, once called “the next chapter in Apple’s story” by CEO Tim Cook, turns one year old this month, which has prompted a good deal of hand wringing over whether it’s a flop or not.
Sure, the Apple Watch doesn’t appear to be the next big computing platform like the iPhone was, but there’s one space where the wearable has already made a huge impact and appears poised to do much more: In the world of medicine.
Here’s what’s happened in the past year:
- People keep emailing Apple to tell them the Apple Watch has saved their life
- Several large-scale studies have been conducted using the Apple Watch and Apple’s ResearchKit software to study conditions like epilepsy and concussions
- 79% of Apple Watch owners use it for health and fitness monitoring, and 56% say its the watch’s primary use, according to a recent study by Fluent
- Companies are selling fully-fledged medical devices using the Apple Watch as a platform, like AliveCor’s heart rate monitoring Kardia Band or Dexcom’s glucose monitoring watch complication
- Hospitals are studying whether using the Apple Watch can help treat conditions like breast cancer or high blood pressure
Unlike other wearable companies, Apple’s aiming at the medical market, not just the fitness market. Its ambitions appear to be closer to Alphabet’s Verily, rather than Google Fit.
“Apple has done so much in the healthcare space compared to the other platforms,” said Julia Hu, CEO of health coaching app maker Lark. “They have totally thought of it from a data and security and privacy standpoint and also thought about it from a regulatory standpoint and an ecosystem-building standpoint. Compared to where Google Fit is right now, HealthKit is more healthcare based.”
One of the main complaints about the Apple Watch is that it can’t do anything the iPhone can’t. That complaint is based around some of the watch’s main features such as notifications and Apple Pay, and it’s wrong. There’s one thing the watch does that the phone clearly can’t: put a sensor next to a user’s skin for better health data collection over hours, days, and weeks.
“These [sensor] apps are essentially impossible to re-create on an iPhone,” wrote Sleep++ developer David Smith in February. “The Apple Watch includes a heart rate monitor, accelerometer and microphone. I don’t think the range and variety of uses for these has been fully explored yet.”
COO Jeff Williams, who is heading up most of Apple’s health ambitions, said in an interview in January that “the only thing on the Apple Watch from a medical standpoint is the heart-rate sensor.”
It’s safe to assume that additional sensors are on the wishlist for Apple Watch 2 or future versions. CEO Tim Cook has said sensors are “set to explode.”
Before the first Apple Watch was released, a glucose monitor — which could revolutionise calorie tracking or diabetes care — was one of the sensors rumoured to be included. The technology wasn’t quite ready yet, but several app developers have told me they’re hoping for it on a future version.
Plus, one of Apple’s recent hires arrived at the company after spending nearly two years working on algorithm development for a “next generation glucose monitor product,” according to a LinkedIn profile.
Other next-generation sensor possibilities include a pulse oximiter, or a hydration sensor.
Plus, Apple has been hiring biomedical engineers at a rapid clip, as Buzzfeed reported in January. Just this month it posted a new job listing for a biomedical studies engineer, preferably with a Ph.D, in its health technology group who would troubleshoot “prototype hardware” and would work on “evaluating feasibility of health, wellness, and fitness sensors.”
And it’s not just engineers that Apple’s hiring — a large number of registered nurses work for Apple, many hired in the past year, consulting on health and fitness uses for the watch, according to an analysis of LinkedIn profiles.
Of course, if Apple really is trying to break into the health space, the big question is whether it will attract the attention of the Food and Drug Administration, which could slow down Apple’s speedy product cycle. Before the Apple Watch came out, Apple officials met with the FDA to figure out where the line between a regulated medical device and a consumer product is.
But recently, Apple has come up closer to the medicinal line, especially with CareKit, a new software framework that will explicitly help “enable people to actively manage their own medical conditions,” which certainly comes closer to triggering FDA regulations than Apple’s general wellness approach so far. Apple said last month that CareKit should be released to developers in April.
Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.