Could Apple be the Tech Company that Finally Brings Health Records to Patients? Why One Expert is Bullish

April 17, 2018
Patients of 39 health systems now can see their medical records right from their iPhones. Leaders at Dignity Health, one of the organizations involved in this Apple initiative, are optimistic that this could help transform healthcare.

Patients of 39 health systems—including some of the most prominent medical institutions in the U.S. that represent hundreds of hospitals and clinics—now have the ability to see their medical records right from their iPhones.

This new “Health Records” feature, from tech giant Apple, was announced in January, with an announcement at the time noting, “The updated Health Records section within the Health app brings together hospitals, clinics and the existing Health app to make it easy for consumers to see their available medical data from multiple providers whenever they choose.” Apple added at the time, “Now, consumers will have medical information from various institutions organized into one view covering allergies, conditions, immunizations, lab results, medications, procedures and vitals, and will receive notifications when their data is updated. Health Records data is encrypted and protected with the user’s iPhone passcode.”

Indeed, Apple said in late January that it would be testing this Health Records feature out with 12 hospitals to start, and that it has “worked with the healthcare community to take a consumer-friendly approach, creating Health Records based on the FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources) standard.”

And as of March 29—just two months after the initial Health Records announcement—Apple said that patients of leading health systems such as NYU Langone Health, Stanford Medicine, Dignity Health, and nearly 40 others, can view their medical records right from their iPhones. ­Previously, Health Records was available to the patients who had joined the Apple Beta Software Program.

The San Francisco-based Dignity Health was one of the first 12 health systems that were “beta testers” for the Health Records feature, which is available now in most Dignity Health markets and soon will be available through the system for patients who have downloaded iOS 11.3 to their phones, according to the health system’s officials.

Shez Partovi, M.D., Dignity Health’s chief digital officer and senior vice president of digital transformation, says that the core reason his organization got involved in this project is because Dignity Health leaders have always believed in “setting the data free and giving it to the patient.” And federal mandates such as the meaningful use EHR (electronic health record) incentive program were not strong enough drivers to make this happen on their own, he adds.

“We want to enable our patients to self-manage [their health]. When you come see a doctor, there is a lot of care and health that happens in-between those visits, and the only way for self-management to be meaningfully enabled is if the information needed to empower that self-management is with the patient. We need to be able to give the patient the data, and whoever builds those tools, I don’t know, but it needs to happen so that personalized self-management can take place,” Partovi says.

Shez Partovi, M.D.

Partovi, who says he is responsible for creating a positive and personalized digital experience for all patients at Dignity Health, notes that there were two phases to testing the Apple Health Records feature. Prior to the public beta that Apple announced in late January, “it was all test data, naturally,” he says. And then once Apple announced the public beta, patients became connected and were able to use the feature on their iPhones. Partovi specifically recalls that he had a friend who was able to download the medical records of his mother—who has a chronic illness—and as a result, the data from all of the clinics she had been too appeared right on her iPhone.

What Sets Apple Apart

When Apple made its January announcement, industry observers were led to ponder if the tech giant would be able to succeed in creating a health records platform, especially since other non-healthcare-specific companies have previously failed at this very endeavor. But Partovi says that it’s Apple’s consumer-centric approach that sets it apart from others.

“Apple didn’t ask for the data to go into the iCloud; they simply said that they want to give the data to the patient. They don’t take the payload, or copy the payload to the cloud—they just deliver the data. Their view has always been to be about the individual, and that’s how they think differently [from other companies],” he says.

On the contrary, Partovi notes that Microsoft (with its HealthVault platform), Google Health and others “have said that they can move data to the cloud, going from one steward to another—me being one steward of the data and Microsoft being the other steward, for example. But Apple’s approach has always been individual-centric, and because of that philosophy about just wanting to help the consumer and get the data on the device, that’s what makes Apple unique. Maybe other companies have thought about this approach, but only Apple is doing it this way,” he says.

What’s more, having strong brand recognition is also a factor that should help Apple in this quest, Partovi believes. “If it was a young startup from Silicon Valley trying to do this, there would certainly be skeptics. But a company like Apple putting their weight behind it will make a difference.”

There are those who believe that a major reason why Google Health, for one, failed at creating a medical records and health data platform is because consumers were not interested in maintaining a digital file cabinet for their health records. Put simply, most healthy consumers wouldn’t care about their medical information unless they got sick. Partovi also believes this to be true, noting that patient data on its own carries little value to consumers. “The normal person might look at blood sugar numbers and think, ‘What can I do with this?’ Conversely, a doctor will look at those numbers and extrapolate it to knowledge,” he says.

But Partovi contends that if one looks at what’s happening with Apple, there is a health ecosystem of apps that will explode so that patients can be helped with turning data to information, information to knowledge, and knowledge to action.

“Generally, people don’t have a great deal of interest or understanding of the data, but what will happen now is when the data is on the phone, and as apps go through FDA clearance, that ecosystem of apps will look at your data and [be able to] help you have knowledge of your health status and wellness,” he says. “So for example, if you let me combine [the health record data] with the caloric intake data from this other app and your fitness data from yet another app, I can help you understand your total life and wellness.” Says Partovi, “That’s where HealthVault and Google Health fell short—they just gave you a digital file cabinet. The app store will allow the meaning of the data to come out.”

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