Apple HealthKit: Coach, Doctor and Nutritionist in One?

Apple HealthKit
Photo: Apple

Keeping track of your workouts, weight and even medical records may get a whole lot easier with the launch of Apple’s new HealthKit tool this month.

If you’ve spent any time perusing the iTunes app store recently, you know there are a dizzying number of apps promising to track your weight, nutrition, vital stats and more. Yet, recalling which app does what (and remembering to actually use them) can be difficult, if not impossible. In a bid to make all that easier, Apple is rolling out their new Health app, powered by an innovative new tool called HealthKit.

Available to any iPhone or iPod Touch users on an iOS 8 device (translation: iPhones 4 through 6), HealthKit aggregates data from your phone’s health apps and stores it in one place. The app will be a perma-fixture on your iPhone’s screen, similarly to the Clock or Maps apps that come pre-loaded on your device.

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Numerous fitness and weight loss companies (including DailyBurn) have already agreed to share data with HealthKit. And for those who choose to opt in, the tool promises to become a place where you can simultaneously see information from your Jawbone, MyFitness Pal Calorie Counter app, or favorite workout program, all at the same time.   

Apple HealthKit
Photo: Apple

Why Some Doctors Are Getting on Board

HealthKit also has the capability to sync up to your private medical records, allowing you to track health data, and communicate with your doctors on a secure network. Users can even program the app’s Medical ID feature to reveal pre-existing conditions, allergies and medications to responders in the event of an emergency.

In Stanford’s pilot study, patients can share blood sugar data through HealthKit, sending it directly to their physicians.

People with chronic health conditions may benefit as well: Medical teams at Stanford University are currently in the midst of launching a pilot program that will allow pediatric patients with type 1 diabetes to more easily track their blood sugar utilizing HealthKit.

“A lot of what we do in type 1 diabetes is big data. We’re always looking at blood sugar trends, the frequency of hypoglycemia, and [how] we can intervene to smooth out blood sugar,” says Dr. Rajiv Kumar, the physician at Stanford Children’s Health and Stanford Medicine leading the study. “The first day I saw a patient with type 1 diabetes, I knew there had to be a better way of doing what we were doing.”

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Currently, patients with diabetes track their blood sugar levels on their own, print out their data, and bring it into a clinic for analysis every three months, according to Kumar. These infrequent visits make it especially difficult to monitor pediatric diabetic patients, who are constantly growing and needing adjustments to their diet.

In Stanford’s pilot study, patients (or parents) can share blood sugar data through HealthKit, sending it directly to their physicians through an app called MyChart, which is run by the electronic medical records company Epic Systems. “I can set up parameters once I’ve requested data; what is too low [for blood sugar], what is too high, how often I get it. Then the patient can send other data or notes, and I can reply back and give my assessment right through MyChart,” Kumar says.

Will Your Data Be Private?

When sharing sensitive medical information electronically, privacy becomes a big concern. According to Apple, apps that share information with HealthKit are all required to have privacy policies, and users should read them carefully before downloading anything to their phone. The company also recently updated their privacy policies for health apps, forbidding developers from selling any health information or utilizing health data for purposes other than for providing health and fitness services. Apple did not respond to further requests for comment on their privacy measures. 

Kumar says he believes the Health app actually offers a more private medium for communication with teens than his usual fallback — the text message. 

“They can send data through their devices at school, or the school nurse can enter that data, and we can all work together as a team.”

“We figured anything is better than what we’re currently doing, specifically for teens,” says Kumar. “[HealthKit] makes life a lot easier for them in the sense that they can ask questions without having to go home and write an email…they can send data through their devices at school, or the school nurse can enter that data, and we can all work together as a team.”

Eventually, Kumar hopes patients won’t even need to enter their data — and that blood sugar monitoring devices will be able to automatically upload readings to the app without the need for intermediary steps.

Android-compatible versions of a similar data-aggregating services have already been announced, such as Google Fit. And more smartphone-based health tools will surely continue to pop up. An app will never replace the need for an actual visit to your doctor’s office — and only time will tell how enthusiastic users will be about meticulously tracking mobile fitness and medical data. But if Apple’s new creation makes us all a little more health conscious, it might be worth a prominent spot on your screen.  

 Will you give the new Health app a try? Tell us what you think in the comments section.

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