Engineer finds obstacles to HealthKit's success

From the mHealthNews archive
By Eric Wicklund
11:01 am

Not everyone is enamored with HealthKit.

Apple's consumer-facing app platform has been used by health systems in countless mHealth pilots and programs since its launch last year, so it's to be expected that some users would encounter problems. The latest to voice concern is Open mHealth, a non-profit group of technology and health experts launched in 2011 with the goal of "breaking down the barriers to integration and bringing clinical meaning to digital health data."

[See also: Stanford unveils app for Apple HealthKit]

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Simply put, the organization says, HealthKit isn't using data as well as it could, and it isn't playing well with others in the sandbox.

In a Nov. 3 blog on the company's website, Chris Schaefbauer, a back-end software engineer and PhD candidate in computer science at The University of Colorado-Boulder, says there's a lot to like about the platform, but there are some "major limitations that prevent it from realizing the vision proposed by Apple." Those issues came to light, he said, as Open mHealth was using HealthKit to build its own iOS app, called Hipbone, and Granola, which converts information in HealthKit to open-standard JSON data that can be used in other platforms.

In his blog, Schaefbauer says HealthKit may be able to take in a lot of data from different systems, but it doesn't have a "well-defined data model" - meaning disparate data like blood glucose readings, inhaler use or blood pressure readings are all fed into the same framework and measured on the same standards.

[See also: Apple's new HealthKit app has some important questions to answer]

"Because these measures can have very different information associated with them, such as the context in which an individual used their inhaler, developers are limited in the expressiveness available to represent each measure," he writes. "In many cases it's like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole."

By taking the data coming into the platform and basically mixing it all together, Schaefbauer says, HealthKit fails to take advantage of the inherent value of the data and instead creates its own silo of information. This blunts HealthKit's ability to work within the health ecosystem and provide clinical outcomes that could move the needle forward.

Schaefbauer outlines three challenges faced in working with HealthKit - an inability to mold data models to the specific qualities of the information, the limitations of using metadata as a model, and an inability to capture time zone information. He points out why those barriers affect how HealthKit can be used in the healthcare ecosystem, and says he hopes Apple looks more closely at how the platform can and should be used going forward.

"It's especially important for Apple to allow developers to easily liberate data that their applications capture in HealthKit into other domains and enable interactions across platforms," he wrote. "Having the ability to export data from HealthKit in interoperable formats and exposing a data model consistent with other standards is essential for the continued innovation of mHealth applications."

[See also: Apple injects new features into HealthKit, Watch]