Apple announces new features to share health data with doctors, track trends over time

Apple is making it easier than ever for users to make the most of the mountains of health data already in the palm of their hands.

At its annual technology showcase known as the Worldwide Developers Conference on Monday, Apple revealed a new feature for users who have opted to share their medical records on their devices. Users can now choose the types of information they would like to share — such as an elevated cholesterol level or their physical activity history — and identify specific people to send it to, such as family members or clinicians.

Apple said the data is privacy-protected and secured during the upload and download process and will not be shared beyond the selected individuals, including Apple itself. The company is also making it possible for doctors using electronic health records made by Cerner, Allscripts, DrChrono, and others to view their patients’ information from Apple devices within the EHR, without having to download or open another app or tab.

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The new feature is among a series of new health functions Apple revealed on Monday across three of its devices: AirPods, the iPhone, and the Apple Watch. The offerings include hearing assistance, a new feature that assesses mobility, and respiratory tracking, all areas that Apple has conducted research on or collaborated with outside scientists to study.

The medical record updates come at a notable juncture for the tech giant: On the heels of the recent introduction of a federal rule that bars data blocking and, for the first time, lets patients access their health information using apps, rival Google recently indicated an interest in exploring a tool for patient health records. A handful of startups with health record tools are also ramping up their work in the area.

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Using the new health record tool, Apple device users can also view more info about lab tests directly in the app — all without needing to head over to rival website Google to find out. For instance, by tapping “about” above a result such as LDL, a type of cholesterol known as low-density lipoprotein, users see an explanation of the test and its importance.

In addition, users can view how their test results may be changing over time with a new feature called “trends,” which includes data on blood glucose, sleep, and physical activity. The results can also connect directly to iMessage: a user can tap on a particular result to create an image of it inside the iMessage app and then text about it with a contact.

Another of the new features, called “walking steadiness,” is designed to assess the health of users’ gait and identify their risk of falls. As someone walks with an iPhone tucked inside a pocket, embedded sensors measure a panoply of statistics about their gait, including speed, evenness, length of stride, timing of steps, and how often both feet are on the ground at the same time.

Combined, those data points provide “powerful insight” on balance, stability, and coordination, Adeeti Ullal, Apple senior manager of motion health technologies, said during the conference. The data used to power the walking tool came from the Apple Heart Study, Ullal said. If a user’s walking steadiness is classified by Apple as low or very low — meaning they are likely to take a tumble in the next year — or if it ever declines sharply within a short time span, they receive a pop-up notification on their smartphone. People with a low walking steadiness score can also access a series of exercises within the Apple activity app that are designed to improve their gait health. Those exercises are based on an evidence-based fitness program called Otago recognized by the National Council on Aging.

Apple’s other health offering comes within the “pro” version of its AirPods headphones, where users with mild hearing impairment can get help tuning out background noise in a bid to help users hear their intended subject more clearly using a tool called “conversation boost.” Lastly, the tech giant revealed respiratory tracking on the Apple Watch, a feature that will notify users if it detects meaningful changes in breathing patterns.

Apple has released results from research on both hearing and mobility in recent months. In February, researchers from Apple and several health systems published a paper suggesting sensors in the Apple Watch could monitor fluctuations in the symptoms of patients with Parkinson’s disease, including changes in mobility. In March, the company released preliminary findings from a hearing study conducted with the University of Michigan suggesting that many people are exposed to higher levels of sound than those recommended by the World Health Organization, putting them at risk of hearing loss. University of Michigan’s Rick Neitzel noted in a briefing on the findings that notifications and other prompts could help steer people to change their listening habits.

And in May, the iPhone maker published a white paper summarizing the results of a mobility study that suggested the device’s sensors could be used to assess users’ functional, day-to-day mobility. “These metrics provide users, researchers, and healthcare providers with a new tool for tracking and quantifying functional mobility,” the researchers wrote.

Source: STAT