An Apple a day….not

Apple has grand ambitions to move into the healthcare field. The company’s CEO Tim Cook once referred to health as the company’s “greatest contribution to mankind.”

CNBC has reported that the company has built up a huge internal team staffed with doctors, health coaches, and engineers, and has developed health-focused software and hardware, and even started medical clinics for its own employees.

Their goal is to equip us with hardware devices, such as the Watch to monitor our health metrics and use artificial intelligence in the cloud to identify ailments. Our healthcare providers would then use this data to aide their diagnosis and treatment. But this seems to be very naive because it fails to address the real impediments to better healthcare.

As one who uses an Apple Watch and Oura ring to monitor my health metrics (because I like to experiement with gadgets), there’s a limited amount of information collected that impacts my health, beyond perhaps my heart rate and step count. Yes, these devices collect a lot of interesting information, and they can perhaps improve my sleeping habits, monitor my oxygen level, and let me know when my temperature is elevated, but these are relatively minor benefits compared to our basic health needs. Notably, my doctors consider these consumer devices more as toys when compared to the equipment in their offices.

One of the more promising measurements from an Apple Watch is atrial fibrillation, but in a recent study, the benefits were disappointing. That’s not to say that the Apple Watch cannot help. In fact, there are cases where it has saved lives by detecting certain abnormalities and alerting the user. One of the biggest benefits of wearing an Apple Watch is its ability to detect and call for help in the event of a fall.

But none of these devices can compare to what a doctor can learn from a personal exam or medical tests. When we have a lingering cough, a fever, or a sudden pain, we need to be examined, or get a prescription.

If a high tech company is going to make an impact here, it’s not going to be a consumer device manufacturer. We tend to put too much hope in having a consumer gadget solve complex problems. It reminds me of self-driving cars. Ten years ago everyone was predicting that self driving cars, using hardware, the cloud, and artificial intelligence, was just two years away. We’re still waiting.

For all these reasons, Apple will not be the company that impacts our health for many years to come, if at all. Among the high tech companies, the company more likely to do that is Amazon. With their acquisition of One Medical, a company with medical offices and on-line care, they realize it’s our access to professional medical help that needs improvement. Amazon has the expertise to rapidly build facilities, create accessibility, and deliver services, while providing exceptional customer service and clear communications.

As this all too typical example shows, it’s not the gadget we need to solve our health crisis, it’s access to professionals. Recently a friend with a potentially serious ailment could not get an appointment with his doctor or a physician’s assistant for more than a week. The office suggested using one of their walk-in urgent care centers, ten miles away. When he arrived a sign on the door indicated it had been closed a month earlier. The failings here were a lack of medical personnel and poor communications, something our watch will never solve.

by Phil Baker