December 9, 2023
Why Apple Wants Users to Store Their Health Data on Their Devices

  • A new report from Apple details how Apple technology supports personal health, medical research, and care and empowers users to take charge of their well-being.
  • With iOS 16 and watchOS 9 coming this fall, Apple Watch and iPhone will offer an expanded array of features focusing on 17 areas of health and fitness.
  • The widely-used Health app now allows users to store up to 150 types of data pertaining to their health.
  • As digital privacy remains a public concern, Apple attests the company remains committed to keeping user data encrypted and secure.

On July 20, Apple released a special health report detailing how its growing catalog of health and fitness features on the Apple Watch and iPhone bridges the gap between users and their health information.

The report, Empowering People to Live a Healthier Day, is an 8-year snapshot detailing how the tech giant’s recent health innovations support the health and wellness of its millions of users worldwide.

In anticipation of iOS 16 and watchOS 9 launching this fall, Apple Watch and iPhone will offer 17 features that focus on health and fitness, including sleep, heart health, women’s health, and mindfulness.

“Technology can play a role in improving health outcomes, but it has to be done thoughtfully,” Dr. Sumbul Desai, vice president of Health at Apple and clinical associate professor in the Department of Medicine at Stanford, told Healthline. “We think there’s an opportunity to encourage people to live a healthier life.”

With iOS 16 and watchOS 9 upgrades coming in the fall, Apple’s expanded catalog of health and fitness features, including sleep tips, mindfulness practices, and heart and fitness monitoring, will become available in more than 200 countries.

“All of our health and fitness features, whether it’s the Health app or our most recent features like sleep stages, medications, and AFib tools, are founded on the belief that access to one’s health information with actionable insights will enable people to take an active role in their health,” Desai said, adding that Apple’s tech provides users with the opportunity to get a longitudinal snapshot of their health.

Apple’s foray into the health and wellness space began in 2014 with the release of the Health app, followed by the Apple watch in 2015. In the years since, Apple has collaborated with the medical community to provide science-based insights into its growing roster of health features.

The new Apple report states that offering users a more complete picture of their health helps them make choices to meet their health goals. According to the report, some users have claimed that Apple’s health technology has been life changing and even life-saving.

The Apple report states that users can now store over 150 types of health data on the Health app on their Apple Watch, iPhone, and connected third-party apps and devices (if they so choose). Users may also store their health records data from connected medical institutions across the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada, and choose whether they share their health data with loved ones.

This availability of information, according to the report, helps to “break down barriers” between the user and their health information. In a press briefing on Tuesday, representatives from Apple stated that its health technology strengthens the patient-provider relationship.

But 150 (or more) types of health data is a lot of sensitive data.

According to Apple, all user data, especially health data, is protected and secure and is never shared with a third party. When an iPhone is locked, for instance, and can only be accessed with a touch or face ID, it means that all of the user’s data is safe and encrypted.

“Privacy has to be the core at the core of everything we do,” Desai said. “Our dedication to privacy is something that comes from a belief that people should expect the same confidentiality for their technology as they do from their doctor.”

Still, there’s always the possibility of a security breach from hackers, according to Anthony Capone, president of DocGo a leading expert on the intersection of healthcare and tech.

“The key is to make the cost of breaching data more expensive than the value of that data,” Capone told Healthline. “In general, this is the nature of software. It’s important to make your defensive measures sufficiently expensive to overcome relative to the benefits of someone obtaining that data.”

And when it comes to sharing your stored health data with your doctor, Capone said there may be an added benefit, but it’s still a good idea to exercise caution.

“When doctors have access to as much information as possible, they are better equipped to make decisions about your care,” he said. “However, it’s important to be informed and ask your provider about the kind of software they have in place. If they’re using ISO 27001 or SOC 2, it will be more difficult to breach.”

According to Desai, the Health app’s Health Records tool allows individuals to have deeper conversations with their doctors, and for doctors to have a clearer understanding of some of the patient’s lifestyle factors that play a role in their overall health.

The Health Records tool is available to patients at over 800 medical institutions across more than 12,000 locations. According to Apple, this makes it easy for users to view their medical data from multiple providers all within the Health app.

Dr. Rigved V. Tadwalkar, board certified cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, told Healthline that it may be helpful for both patients and doctors to have access to health information that can at times be difficult to obtain.

“Having access readily to that information can be great during a visit when the doctor is strapped for time,” Tadwalkar said. “From an ethical perspective, I think it’s the right thing to do. If people want access to their records they should have it — it’s just a matter of how they’re accessed.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in 2018, 51.8% of U.S. adults had at least one chronic condition and 27.2% had multiple chronic conditions. Capone noted that for those living with chronic conditions, continual health monitoring is crucial.

“Today, one of the largest and fastest-growing segments within the healthcare technology space is remote patient monitoring (RPM), which leverages technology to monitor medical data from patients for provider assessment,” Capone said. “A narrowly focused RPM device, the Apple Watch, can monitor certain vital signs, including heart rate.”

Physicians like Tadwalkar say they have benefitted from patients who monitor, store and share their health data with their doctor. He said some of the most common health data points that are shared in his practice by his patients include heart rate and rhythm trends.

“The biggest benefit is obviously that there’s more information because it gives us a peek at what an individual’s health is like outside of the healthcare setting,” Tadwalkar said.

Still, not every physician may always want or need to process that much of their patient’s health information. Here’s a look at the benefits and drawbacks of storing health data on your device.

Paints a more holistic picture of health

Monitoring your health and storing the data may help provide you and your doctor with a more complete understanding of your overall health.

Tadwalkar explained there’s often a contrast between what physicians see in the office versus what patients are experiencing at home. For instance, a person’s heart rate may be lower than what’s measured at the doctor’s office.

Helps you be more proactive with your health

Many people may feel they need to be better invested in their health in order to achieve optimal outcomes, Tadwalkar explained. Monitoring health and fitness may be helpful for some people to take charge of their health on a regular basis outside of their biannual or annual doctor’s visits.

Potentially life-saving

Apple’s new report indicates that its health monitoring features have been life-saving for some users.

For example, if a physician has been trying to identify a rarely occurring arrhythmia but hasn’t been able to locate it, a patient may be able to record it on their Apple Watch when it occurs outside of the doctor’s office. “That, in fact, is huge, because now you’ve added a diagnostic tool,” Tadwalkar said. “Then we can review it and decide if it’s something that needs to be studied with more clinical rigor.”

Or, if a person is at risk for falls and has a significant fall, they may trigger an emergency SOS notification on their Apple Watch to call for help. “In my opinion, this is the true value of these technologies,” Tadwalkar said. “When it’s prescribed to the right person, it can be immensely helpful.”

Too much’ data

“I think most physicians would agree there’s too much data to take in, which can cloud the general overview of their patient’s health,” Tadwalkar said. “And I think the biggest disconnect is that many patients have a difficult time understanding that not every data point is necessarily actionable.”

Tadwalkar stressed that troves of personal health data don’t necessarily mean that it will yield a conclusive piece of evidence when it comes to how you should take care of your health. “In reality, it may have little to do with what we might be treating them for,” he said.

Potentially anxiety-provoking

Having that much personal health data at your fingertips could be anxiety-inducing, particularly for those who may be dealing with mental health conditions.

“If you have access to all of your records from multiple sources, you can get caught up in the medical jargon and feel overwhelmed with the degree of information you’re looking at,” Tadwalkar said.

The new report also details how Apple’s health technology has been used in medical research in recent years.

Apple’s ResearchKit framework helps researchers recruit U.S.-based study participants from its Apple Watch and iPhone user base (participants may choose to share health data for scientific research or opt-out).

For instance, the well-known Apple Heart Study, a large-scale clinical study funded by Apple, produced compelling and useful data for medical researchers to help inform some of Apple’s health features. Desai said the peer-reviewed study was an opportunity to work with the medical community to better understand the impact of an irregular heart rhythm notification.

Recent Apple studies in collaboration with medical organizations like the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the American Heart Association, the World Health Organization, and others, include:

Preliminary findings from these studies appear in the new report.

According to Apple, all of the company’s health and fitness features are grounded in science. (Apple’s in-house clinicians run clinical studies as part of the product development process.)

Apple has a goal of having people view health as an everyday practice through its technology.

“One of our greatest privileges at Apple is that people carry our devices around with them every day, so we feel this responsibility, as well as an opportunity, to gather scientifically validated actionable health insights through their devices to really enable that learning,” Desai said.

Still, not everyone may need to track and store their health data in order to lead a healthy life.

“You don’t necessarily need technology to tell you if you’re doing a good job with your health or your lifestyle,” Tadwalkar said. “Sometimes the tried and true methods of just following up-to-date and sound advice from your medical team is enough.”