Timeline: Apple's 2017 in digital health

By Jonah Comstock
03:50 pm

Every year it seems like Apple makes more and more moves in the healthcare space, and 2017 was no different. From multiple health-related Apple Watch updates and features to a clinical study to multiple healthcare hires and acquisitions, the company continued to prove its interest in becoming, if not a healthcare company, a consumer company with plenty of healthcare interests.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has also started to speak out more about those healthcare interests. He told Fortune this past fall that Apple's interest in healthcare is partly motivated by the sector's business promise, but that the company also launches other initiatives without a clear business model for the sake of helping people as well as experimenting with things that could lead to profitability in the future. 

"There’s much more in the health area," he told Fortune at the time. "There’s a lot of stuff that I can’t tell you about that we’re working on, some of which it’s clear there’s a commercial business there. And some of it it’s clear there’s not. And some of it it's not clear. I do think it’s a big area for Apple’s future."

Read on for a timeline of some of the Cupertino tech giant's biggest moves, rumored and confirmed, over the course of 2017:

February 16: Through its largely stealthy Mobility Partner Program, Apple connected the telehealth and patient engagement platform from UK-based Physitrack with mobile-enabled EHR maker drchrono. The two companies joined forces to integrate Physitrack’s home exercise program into drchrono’s EHR on the web, iPad, iPhone, and Apple Watch, giving all of drchrono’s provider customers access to Physitrack to use with their patients through their EHR account.

April 12: In April, CNBC broke news of a secret Apple team working on noninvasive glucose sensing. So far that scoop has yet to be confirmed by the company or made public but, as we wrote at the time, it makes sense and it would be an interesting and ambitious move for the company if it pans out.

May 10: Apple acquired sleep tracking company Beddit for an undisclosed amount. It likely acquired the company for the team, the technology, and the patents — which could mean the company is revisiting the idea of sleep tracking functionality on the Apple Watch. Interestingly, sleep expert Roy J.E.M. Raymann left the company around the same time, but he told MobiHealthNews the timing was coincidential.

May 17: While the Beddit acquisition had an obvious digital health connection, another acquisition, of AI company Lattice, also had a healthcare history. Lattice is working on using artificial intelligence to turn "dark data," which is unstructured, largely unusable data generated through digital interactions, into structured, usable data. DeepDive had at least two documented applications in the medical space, one sorting through medical literature and one in pharmacogenomics.

May 23: After being removed at the very end of last year, Withings products returned to Apple Store shelves following the settlement of a patent lawsuit between Apple and Withings' parent company, Nokia. The announcement came with a suggestion that the two companies could be working together on a digital health project now that their relationship is restored.

June 5: At its annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) launch event, Apple detailed a number of updates to the Apple Watch's fitness features. The big news of the announcement was GymKit, a new data connection between the Apple Watch and exercise equipment, but the company also heavily upgraded the device's swim tracking capabilities.

June 7: Though they weren't mentioned in the keynote, in day 3 sessions at WWDC, Apple also announced updates to CareKit, ResearchKit, and HealthKit which MobiHealthNews broke down in three separate articles. Along with audiovisual enhancements and improved user interfaces for both developers and study participants, Apple added some new active task features to ResearchKit. It also added a number of new trackable fields to HealthKit including, most notably, insulin delivery. Finally, the company made it easier to connect CareKit apps to hospital back-ends, created a prototyping tool to make CareKit more accessible to non-developers, and improved the CareKit UI.

June 13: Apple quietly hired Dr. Sumbul Desai, clinical associate professor of medicine at Stanford. Desai now serves in a senior role at Apple in its growing healthcare team, and she is also continuing to see patients at Stanford.

July 5: WWDC also saw Apple's announcement of native Bluetooth for the Apple Watch. In July, at least three healthcare companies — Dexcom, Propeller, and ReSound — talked to MobiHealthNews about their plans for the capability. 

July 17: In mid-July, MobiHealthNews caught up with Jay Blahnik, Apple's director of fitness and health, to talk about Apple's philosophy around motivation and behavior modification in fitness.

August 14: In what may or may not suggest a future direction for Apple, the USPTO granted the company a new patent that details ways the iPhone itself could be used as a health sensor to detect "blood pressure index, blood hydration, body fat content, oxygen saturation, pulse rate, perfusion index, electrocardiogram, photoplethysmogram, and/or any other such health data." This data could be gleaned from the front-facing camera, the ambient light sensor, the proximity sensor, or a special electrode built into the device.

August 16: CNBC broke the news that Apple and Aetna were in secret meetings to expand a program that could give Apple Watches for free to Aetna members. Axios confirmed the news in November.

September 12: At another event, Apple announced that the Apple Watch would be used in the first ever clinical study sponsored by Apple. Apple and Stanford will run a large remote trial to determine whether the Apple Watch's heart rate sensor can be used to reliably detect atrial fibrillation and potentialy prevent life-threatening strokes.

September 26: Apple was one of the nine companies announced in September as a participant in the FDA's new pre-certification program. The program could make it much easier for Apple to release certain kinds of health devices in the future.

November 30: In November the Stanford study officially launched, and Apple revealed two more companies involved: American Well, which will be providing telemedicine consultations, and BioTelemetry, which will provide EKG patches that will be mailed to patients in whom possible atrial fibrillation is detected.


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