Apple moves into mobile healthcare with HealthKit software

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Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) took a tentative step into the mobile healthcare market with the introduction of HealthKit, a new software suite that lets developers access health data from a variety of applications to create a single health profile. Apple also introduced a standalone, user-facing app called "Health" as part of its iOS 8 software update that can monitor a variety of health-related metrics from different apps in a single dashboard.

Craig Federighi, Apple's senior vice president of software engineering, announced the new software at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference Monday. He noted that iOS developers have created a vast array of healthcare apps for monitoring things like heart rate, weight, blood pressure and glucose levels for people with diabetes. Until now, he said, users could not get "a single comprehensive picture" of all of their health data. That information "lives in silos," he said.

HealthKit is designed to allow applications to contribute to a composite profile of a person's health data. For example, Apple said users can allow data from their blood pressure app to be automatically shared with their doctor or allow a nutrition app to tell fitness apps how many calories a user has consumed each day. The Health app itself lets users monitor the metrics they are most interested in, Federighi said.

Rumors of HealthKit have been swirling for months; the app was previously thought to be called Healthbook, but Apple apparently changed that name or earlier leaks were wrong. Apple did not unveil any new hardware or wearable devices connected to HealthKit. However, as Re/code notes, Apple's M7 motion co-processor, which is in the iPhone 5s and newer iPads, lets Apple passively gathering of motion and activity data, and some apps such as Fitbit and RunKeeper already use the chip. That could be the foundation of any future fitness or monitoring hardware Apple makes.

Health also works with third-party applications, and to allay concerns about privacy, Federighi said users will have total control over which apps can connect to Health. The Apple executive said that Nike is working to integrate with HealthKit.

Apple is also working with the Mayo Clinic, though it's unclear how exactly it will work. Federighi said that when an app takes a blood pressure reading, HealthKit can automatically notify an app and the app can see if the reading is within patient's blood pressure threshold. The software suite can then notify the hospital and doctors can reach out to the patient if there are any issues.

"We think this is going to be really important for healthcare," Federighi said. He also said Apple is working with Epic Systems, which provides technology at hospitals serving more than 100 million Americans. That partnership will let Apple work more than 20 other hospitals included the Cleveland Clinic, Mount Sinai, UCLA Health and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Healthcare and health monitoring is seen as a growth area for smartphone makers, especially as more wearable computing devices with monitoring capabilities are brought to market. So far though most smartphone companies have made only halting steps into the market. The health and fitness monitoring market is still evolving. For example, Nike, which makes the FuelBand wearable, has said it will focus more on software than hardware going forward.  

The announcement from Apple comes less than a week after rival Samsung Electronics unveiled a new hardware reference design called Simband that tracks health data like heart rate and blood pressure. The Simband lets developers and healthcare companies add their own sensors, algorithms and tweaks, but will not be sold commercially. The band includes acoustic sensors to measure what is going on inside a person's body.

For more:
- see this FierceMobileHealthcare article
- see this Apple site
- see this The Verge live blog

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Article updated June 3 to clarify the differences between Apple's HealthKit software and Health app, and Apple's relationship with Epic Systems.