Apple WWDC 2021 Health Roundup

It's that time of year

We’re talking health + tech today as I dive into some of the latest health updates Apple put out in its recent WWDC event. If you were forwarded this newsletter and want to get your own you can subscribe below. Also, feel free to say hi on Twitter!

It’s Apple hype season right now with WWDC 2021 revealing iOS 15, iPadOS 15, macOS Monterey, and watchOS 8. The software updates are fun and exciting and I’ve already download 3 of the 4 betas and suffering the consequences of having to charge my phone not even halfway through the day.

However, there were actually some great Health related updates that never get the kind of love they deserve. So that’s what we are going to do today. I’ll go through some of the Health updates that Apple put out, how they can help people today, and what could make them even better as they keep getting updates.

Data In & Data Out

Healthcare ~data~ was one of the bigger focuses at WWDC this year. To start, there have been improvements made to help users better understand the data that they are importing into the Health app. For example, if you add your Quest account to get your labs imported into the Health app, there are nice visualizations and explanations showing how your data is trending over time (e.g. what your LDL was, currently is, and how it has changed). In addition to lab data, you can also store immunization data so that it can be easily accessed later (because I know you have no idea where your Covid vaccine card is anymore).

This is good. Patients should of course have access to their health records and data and the 21st Century Cures Act that will require EHRs to provide APIs so that more can be done with the data that is sitting inside these EHRs. This will only add to the trend of patients being able to be more in the know of what is going on.

However, there is always a flip side of the coin and I’m sure this increased access to data and especially explanation of numbers changing will probably cause an initial spike in patient questions for their doctors. The Health app integration for importing your data is hidden in the settings and so I can’t imagine a lot of people will use it (I only just recently added my Quest account), but it is something to think about as we move to a world where your healthcare data will hopefully be given to you in an understandable format.

In addition to better explaining your healthcare data to you, another big update is Health Sharing. With iOS 15, you can now choose to share specific data points from your Health app with your family members and even your doctor (or any other contact for that matter). When you walk through the setup, it will ask you what buckets of data you want to share and show you a preview of what the recipient will see.

The nifty part about this is that the people that you share your data with can also get notifications if something changes or happens to you (e.g. if you heart rate is too high or low). From the disclaimers I got when setting this up, these notifications are not real time and I’m not entirely sure how iOS knows what may be an abnormal finding vs me just becoming out of breath when walking up the stairs. Maybe there will be more information on this as the final version is released but for now it seems to be a black box and my initial concern is for a lot of false positives to go through.

An even better layer on top of all of this would be if you could get really granular with these notifications (e.g. set boundaries for heart rate, only get heart rate notifications at a certain time of day or no notifications if the person is working out, etc.). I doubt we will ever see this level of customizability from Apple since it may confuse the end user more to set everything up but in theory it sounds pretty cool (not sure how useful though).

Trends

Outside of data import and sharing, Trends was the other big highlight for Health updates. When you open the Health app in iOS 15 you will now see a dedicated Trends section showing how you are doing in areas like Exercise Minutes, Steps, Standing Hours, etc. Apple says there is trends analysis available for 20 types of data but who’s counting right?

Tapping into a specific trend will pull up a chart and you can change the time window to see how you are doing over different time periods. There is also a section to manage trend notifications but it isn’t robust at all and just gives you a toggle to get a notification when there is a new trend available.

Honestly, this update seems very hand-wavy and I don’t know what I would even do with Trends data. There is no Apple Health widget for me to see my trends displayed on a home screen if I wanted. I just have to remember to go into the Health app every once in a while to see how I’m doing.

There is also no call to action (at least yet). Trends could be useful if Apple could tell you to take certain actions based on your trends. For example, if it sees that your exercise minutes are going down, it could recommend Apple Fitness workouts for you to do. If it sees a dip in your sleeping average then there could be a trigger to help you set up a night routine or some kind of resource to help you manage your sleep better.

None of this is there yet and it makes sense. In the grand scheme of things that Apple is working on, this is very low yield. It may create a slightly better user experience but Apple isn’t trying to become a healthcare company. It is trying to add bells and whistles to the overall ecosystem and essentially build a higher gate around its castle.

With that said, I still think there is some incentive with Apple Fitness that could push Apple to invest more time in its Health app updates (especially since Peloton is gaining market share in the home/remote fitness market with its app + bike).

Slow and Steady

The other health updates weren’t that big in my opinion but still worth mentioning. Walking Steadiness is a new “custom algorithm” that warns users of their fall risk by using the iPhone’s sensor. The interesting part about this update isn’t the update itself but rather that it uses data from the Apple Heart and Movement Study with more than 100k participants (looks like study results are not posted online yet). That’s pretty remarkable and I’m going to dig into how Apple was able to get so many people to sign up (or not opt out lol) of something like this. Yet another benefit of the ecosystem.

Update: Looks like it was voluntary to join the study via the Apple Research app and that there was an invitation to volunteer (i.e. probably a push notification)

“Participants will self-enroll in this trial, if they meet inclusion criteria, and there will be no active recruitment of any particular population. Invitation to volunteer.”

Apple Watch Updates

Finally, watchOS 8 brought with it some mini updates as well. The Apple Watch can now measure respiratory rate during sleep - so add another data point into your health app.

There is also a new Mindfulness app with a Reflect mode and a Breathe mode. It isn’t really that different from the previous Breathe app. There are some new visualizations that show up when you reflecting or breathing but to be honest, I turned off the daily notifications for this on my watch almost immediately.

Well, that’s the Apple Health Roundup! There were a lot of great and unique features introduced and I think Apple investing more resources into Health is going to be overall net positive for patients. The next big step for Apple will be to take all of these inputs and work to provide meaningful action from them. A hard task to do for sure but if any company is well positioned to do this, it’s definitely Apple.


Thanks for checking out the newsletter! If you have thoughts on this or other things you saw at WWDC 2021 I’d love to hear from you. If you found this useful, I’d appreciate if you could share this with someone else! And if you were forwarded this from a friend and want your own, you can subscribe below. Take care and have a good week!