Why Apple's Healthbook is so important

Yesterday’s 9to5Mac – a highly-regarded Apple AAPL +0.61% rumor website – offered a remarkably detailed look into the Healthbook application that may (or may not) be incorporated into iOS8, the next operating system update.

The app – organized like the current Passbook app – offers “cards” corresponding to a range of functionalities, including blood work, heart rate, hydration, nutrition, sleep, and blood glucose, among others.   It’s not clear at this point where these measurements are expected to come from: perhaps 3rdparty device makers like Withings or Jawbone – thought for at least some functionalities, Apple is believed to be developing sensors of its own.

It’s a long path from sensor data to actionable information – and a long way from there to significantly improved health (to say nothing of reduced healthcare costs).  The vast majority of people are unlikely to derive significant health benefit from tracking their heart rate or hydration level – even if these were measured with reasonable accuracy (not a given); the same goes for many of other quantified parameters.

In some cases, however, the impact is likely to be profound and immediate – blood glucose monitoring in diabetics, for example.  It’s difficult to find the parent of a child with type 1 diabetes who isn’t frustrated by the difficulty of collecting and aggregating the data from the various blood glucose monitors a typical child might use – the interfaces are generally described as “awful” and “atrocious.”  By creating a common platform to which blood glucose data must be exported, Healthbook may catalyze the rapid, customer-friendly evolution of this critical area of biomedical sensors – and immediately improve patient care.  (This assumes Healthbook could be used to track the health data of loved ones, older as well as younger – a capability I’d view as essential.)

This “common platform” model could well be Healthbook’s path to impact; right now, the consumer sensor ecosystem is a veritable Tower of Babel (equally true inside hospitals, by the way); interoperability and information sharing are major problems (my own example from wearables here).

Presumably, most sensor companies will decide it’s in their enlightened self-interest to play nicely with this platform, given its likely ubiquity.  This will enable Healthbook to consolidate data from a range of devices (a huge advance in itself), and provide a de facto minimal interoperability standard that new sensors will need to clear if they want to gain traction in the market.

I suspect there might be a less obvious but equally important upside to Healthbook as well.  Despite the diligent efforts of many companies, most patients still don’t “own” their personal health data in the way they own other important information; many are still content to have this information maintained and managed by doctors and staff, clinics and hospitals.  Healthbook may help catalyze an important perceptual transition here, and may help more patients realize that their health data is truly theirs, and not their physicians’.

Historically, such a transfer of responsibility might have appeared both foreign and overwhelming; yet Healthbook may make ownership of personal health data familiar and comfortable – a critical step in patient empowerment.

Moreover, if greater ownership of health data leads us to feel a greater sense of ownership of our health, a sense that we have the ability not only to maintain our health information, but also to influence, through our behavior, the data that’s collected – what a powerful and beneficial transformation this could be.

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