David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple Inc.
Apple and Aetna conducted a series of meetings late last week to discuss the next step in their partnership, as reported by CNBC.
The primary topic of discussion was Apple’s health-tracking smartwatch — Apple Watch — and whether it could be used to improve health outcomes. Currently, Aetna is gathering feedback from its own employees, who are currently testing whether the watch can help them eat better and exercise more regularly.
Mandi Bishop was among a small group of digital health influencers invited to the event. Chief medical officers from various health systems and a select group of Aetna employees were also invited, with Apple’s Myoung Cha presiding over many of the discussions.
Bishop, who previously ran global health analytics at Dell and now has a startup called Lifely Insights, shared a few of her impressions from the event.
Bishop recalled that a huge portion of the event involved discussions about data privacy.
“Both companies wanted to make sure that we knew what data is shared and what isn’t,” she said.
Bishop said some Aetna employees were asking about whether the health data collected by Apple Watch could be shared with external vendors. Others requested to extract data like heart rate and other vital signs from the watch, so they could store it in a personal health record.
One of the biggest concerns with companies like Apple and Fitbit collecting health information, like steps and heart rate, is that it could get into the wrong hands. These fears are amplified as technology companies strike deals with self-insured employers and health plans.
For its part, Apple has repeatedly stressed that health data can only be shared with user consent. And these policies extend to third-party apps for iPhone and Apple Watch.
“A lot of Aetna employees talked about being able to afford the Apple Watch for the entire family,” said Bishop. One theme that emerged during the event, she said, is that many of those who were enrolled in the program wanted to get healthy alongside their families. But many couldn’t afford to spend upwards of $1,000 on devices for their spouses and children.
The cost issue wasn’t entirely resolved, she said, but it proved to be a sticking point. It remains unclear whether Aetna will extend its discounts from employees and/or members to their family-members.
Bugs and features
Many of those who tested out the watch had a lot of positive comments to share with Apple, but there were a few issues to iron out.
One complaint was the lack of situational awareness, such as a reminder to move when a user was on a long flight, or an alert to meditate in the middle of a conference call.
“Everyone wanted the technology to be totally seamless,” she said.
Solving for chronic disease
Most wearable products today are targeted to people who are already health-conscious and are eager to better track their workouts. But for a device like Apple Watch to make a big difference to health insurers, it needs to attract people who have costly chronic diseases. It also needs to appeal to an older demographic, and not just the young and healthy.
Already, Apple is making steps in this direction by releasing its bluetooth API for Apple Watch, which allows users to sync their watch to a glucose sensor from medical device makers like Dexcom. That’s a particularly useful feature for patients with diabetes.
Bishop envisions a future where the device could collect important health information, and even alert health plans or providers about a serious medical event. “That’s where it gets really useful,” she said.
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