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Apple Takes Bigger Bite Into Healthcare Tracking, Renewing Debate on Data Privacy

In the latest development in the push to use smartphones and wearables to track users’ health, Apple Inc. is looking into ways to use its devices to detect and diagnose mental health conditions. It’s part of a series of similar undertakings with implications for consumers’ most sensitive personal information — their health data — and what companies can do with it.

Recent PYMNTS research finds that consumers are not turned off by the idea, per se. In the August Generation HealthTech Report done in collaboration with Rectangle Health, researchers found that 76% of respondents are “very” or “extremely” interested in using digital tools and methods to monitor health status, as well as to help manage healthcare payments.

Whether people want healthcare data stored on private-sector servers and analyzed for its commercial potential is another matter, one around which more clarity is needed.

On Tuesday (Sept. 21), The Wall Street Journal reported that Apple Inc. “is working on technology to help diagnose depression and cognitive decline, aiming for tools that could expand the scope of its burgeoning health portfolio,” and adding that “using an array of sensor data that includes mobility, physical activity, sleep patterns, typing behavior and more, researchers hope they can tease out digital signals associated with the target conditions so that algorithms can be created to detect them reliably.”

For Apple, the tracking of health status via devices is part of a two-pronged initiative that was updated in early 2021 when pharmaceutical giant Biogen announced a multi-year observational research study with Apple. It builds on an August 2020 announcement that Apple and UCLA are conducting a three-year study “co-designed by researchers at UCLA and Apple to obtain objective measures of factors such as sleep, physical activity, heart rate and daily routines to illuminate the relationship between these factors and symptoms of depression and anxiety.”

Biogen said its partnership is “driven by the powerful technology in Apple Watch and iPhone and Biogen’s in-depth knowledge of neuroscience,” adding that “the study’s primary objectives are to develop digital biomarkers to help monitor cognitive performance over time and identify early signs of MCI,” an acronym for “mild cognitive impairment.”

An Apple a Day…

Of Apple’s efforts, TechCruch reported that “if data from the studies lines up with symptoms of depression or anxiety, Apple could use it to create a feature that warns users if it sees signs of a mental health condition. The iPhone could prompt users to seek care, which could be important, as early detection can improve quality of life in the long run.”

A looming question, however, is how consumers feel about commercial Big Tech interests adding personal healthcare information to existing reservoirs of consumer data.

Announced in June, for example, the company’s Health app allows consumers to pull health data from provider websites to store and share via Apple devices. In a statement, Apple COO Jeff Williams said, “…we’re enabling our users to take a more active role in their well-being. We’ve added powerful features that give users the most comprehensive set of insights to better understand their health trends over time.”

As Fast Company recently put it, “All these updates may seem minor, but they’re representative of a larger story: Apple increasingly wants to serve as an interface between patients and their doctors. While Apple has not always succeeded in creating health products, the industry is still likely to welcome it. Healthcare providers want more ways to engage with patients outside their offices, and regulators want patients to have easier access to their own health data.”

See also: Generation HealthTech: How Digital Tools Amplify Millennial Patient Loyalty

Connected Healthcare Action at Fever Pitch

For their part, consumers seem torn between the obvious benefits of using devices they carry everywhere to monitor their health status versus how that data might be stolen or misused.

In “Connected Healthcare: What Consumers Want From Their Healthcare Customer Experiences,” a companion study to Generation HealthTech, also a Rectangle Health collaboration, respondents show strong support for use of digital healthcare management tools.

Per that study, “research found that young adults are more likely to abandon healthcare providers that do not provide digital healthcare management tools than baby boomers and seniors. Despite high levels of healthcare provider loyalty among most consumers, bridge millennial, millennial and Gen Z patients care enough about digital healthcare management options that they lead every other demographic in their willingness to leave one provider for another that offers the digital options they desire.”

To a large extent, findings in the connected healthcare studies deal with payments preferences among demographic groups. A separate study, “AI In Focus: Targeting Fraud, Waste and Abuse in Healthcare,” a collaboration between PYMNTS and Brighterion, a Mastercard company, looks at points of leakage in healthcare, including fraud and the potential for data theft.

AI In Focus concluded that “smart firms are increasing their focus and investments on AI capabilities that can help identify false claims and errors. Healthcare firms would be wise to identify AI solutions that can help them combat FWA.”

See also: Connected Healthcare: What Consumers Want From Their Healthcare Customer Experiences

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