Looking at its hardware, the Apple Watch might not seem all that different from other wearables: a touchscreen display, a heart rate sensor, haptic feedback for taps and notifications, a mic for voice controls. Even so, it is poised to have a major impact on connected health management. As with the iPhone, it’s the software that will move the needle.
“What excites me the most about the Apple Watch is its ability to build positive habits,” says Jeremy Olson, founder of Tapity. Tapity is an award-winning app maker with plans for Watch apps. “The killer apps will be the ones that make positive interactions so convenient and front-of-mind that users can’t help but live healthier, more productive lives.”
After revealing its watch to the world in late September, Apple gave developers access to the Apple Watch API (WatchKit) in November. Developers currently have only limited access, but it’s becoming clear that won’t keep it from becoming a powerful, popular consumer tool, particularly with regards to health management. Services focused on tracking health will be able to use the Watch interface to display relevant, up-to-the-minute statistics in a way that’s more convenient than on a smartphone, or on a monitoring device’s screen. It will do this using the processing power of your iPhone, rather than a mobile chip onboard the watch itself, and updates will be sent to the watch wirelessly.The patient who only wants to track weight and steps can use the same platform to capture lung function and blood glucose.
DexCom Monitor will work this way. It will use the Apple Watch to show blood glucose levels for Type 1 diabetics by presenting an easy-to-read graph on the smartwatch’s display. The glucose information itself is tracked from DexCom’s monitor, a tiny Class III medical device positioned under the skin. It measures glucose levels every five minutes, transmits the data to a phone app, and then the app sends the graph images to the smartwatch.
Respiratory health tracking will also get a boost from the Watch’s platform. Cohero Health is working on an Apple Watch app so asthmatics can better track their medical adherence and lung function. The company currently makes an inhaler strap and mobile spirometer, a Class II medical device that captures important respiratory performance metrics like functional expiratory volume (FEV1) and forced vital capacity (FVC) levels. These sync with its AsthmaHero mobile app, which tracks this data for the user and relays it to their healthcare provider through HealthKit.
For Cohero Health CEO Melissa Manice, the beauty of the Apple Watch is that it doesn’t make health tracking burdensome anymore. It de-stigmatizes chronic illness.
“The patient who only wants to track weight and steps can use the same platform that can also capture lung function and blood glucose,” Manice says. “It levels the playing field.”
But managing a chronic disease often requires long-term changes to a person’s lifestyle. Malay Gandhi, managing director at Rock Health, says that giving people continuous feedback, prompting and reminding them at the right times, is key to inducing those sorts of lifestyle changes. Wrist-based notifications are perfect for this.
Take Propeller Health, another tool for those with respiratory conditions. In addition to monitoring inhaler usage with the company’s Bluetooth sensor, its location-sensing mobile app tracks weather, pollen count, and air quality (along with other personal trigger factors) to notify a patient when conditions arise that might initiate an asthma attack. The notifications are personalized and contextually relevant, and since they’re on the wrist, they could be even less obtrusive than they are on a smartphone. Current users of the app see a significant reduction in rescue inhaler use—and more asthma free days. Propeller Health plans to begin work on an Apple Watch app after it begins shipping.The Apple Watch could lure in new users who never previously thought about tracking their fitness activities because now they’ll get the functionality and convenience for “free.”
Gandhi, whose company Rock Health wants “to fund the first iconic company” to take advantage of the wrist interface for health monitoring, also sees the Apple Watch being useful in supporting good mental health.
“I use an anxiety coaching app, and it would be helpful to get prompts throughout the day rather than whenever I have an opportunity to open the app,” Gandhi says.
And of course, the Apple Watch has the potential to make fitness and activity tracking more accessible, especially to new users. Runtastic CEO and co-founder Florian Gschwandtner thinks the Watch will intrigue people new to fitness-tracking by letting them play with types of data they’ve never seen before. He first saw this when his company’s app debuted on the iPhone.
“People weren’t previously aware of the ability to track their runs and soon, they were nearly addicted to doing so,” Gschwandtner says. The Apple Watch could lure in new users who never previously thought about tracking their activities because now they’ll get the functionality and convenience for “free.”
The watch could even potentially help you make better decisions when you’re having a night on the town. Breathalyzer maker BACtrack is working on an Apple Watch app that will work with its Mobile and Vio smartphone breathalyzers. It adds a bit of convenience: users will be able to test their blood alcohol content by tapping the Apple Watch and then blowing into the BACtrack, leaving their phone in their pocket. Sure, it’s mostly a novelty. But sometimes, that little bit of convenience is all it takes for people to increase their engagement with a product.
Apple is reportedly assisting developers at its Cupertino headquarters so their WatchKit apps are primed for launch day. Take this as evidence that the Apple Watch apps we are learning about now are only a fraction of what we’ll see in the days and months following its April launch. But if what we see on launch day is anywhere near as impressive as the tidbits we’re learning about during this lead up, we can expect big steps toward better health management.
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