Apple unveils automated health data alerts, in-EHR record sharing, fall risk analysis and more at WWDC 2021

Cupertino, California-based tech giant Apple showed off a cavalcade of health monitoring features designed for consumers at its annual developer's conference, each of which will be available later this year. (Apple)

Apple iPhone users will soon be able to review long-term analyses of their health, receive automated alerts of changes to their loved one’s condition and share health data directly to their provider’s EHR system through the Apple Health app, the tech company revealed today at its annual WWDC event.

These health features will land alongside others designed to help users better understand the results of their health tests or records as well as those providing new ways to measure iPhone owners’ gait and risk of a fall.

“A critical part of taking care of yourself is monitoring changes in your health, which can be subtle and easy to miss; so, this year we’re offering three new features to help you to identify, measure and understand those changes,” Sumbul Desai, M.D., vice president of Apple Health, said during the developer conference.

For the past few years, Apple has encouraged users to store their health and wellness information within the company’s Health app.

RELATED: Apple steps up its focus on health with new blood oxygen sensor, population health initiative in Singapore

Later this year, a new “Trends” feature will display 20 different health metrics such as steps, resting heart rate, blood glucose and sleep longitudinally, the company said. It will also deliver optional automated alerts when there is a meaningful change in any of these metrics.

Lab results imported to the app, meanwhile, will be elaborated upon so that consumers who are unfamiliar with medical terms or other technical information can better understand the context and implications of their results.

“For example, when you receive a cholesterol result you can now see that the LDL is the bad cholesterol, and that having too much can put you at risk of heart disease,” Desai said. “You can also now see whether your labs are within expected ranges. Together, these views will help you get more meaning from your lab results.”

More quietly, the company announced in a release that the operating system update will add new options for storing immunization records and other test results inside of the health app. This feature will allow patients to download and verify their health status via an online browser or QR code, regardless of whether their vaccine provider or other medical location supports Apple’s Health Records feature, the company said.

RELATED: Apple and Google launch contact tracing API for COVID-19 exposure

The tech company also outlined a pair of new health data sharing capabilities for individuals seeking professional care as well as those monitoring the health of dependents.

The first of these allows users to securely share their health and wellness records with a provider from inside the Apple Health app, Desai said. Clinicians will be able to review the longitudinal data and a history of alerts generated by the Trends feature, she said, and will do so directly through their organization’s EHR system.

The feature will initially roll out to a limited collection of EHRs within the U.S., Desai noted. In the slide during the presentation, Apple listed Cerner, Allscripts, athenahealth, CPSI, DrChrono and Meditech Expanse as the first vendors that will support this type of data sharing.

“Access to this information helps give your doctor a more complete view of your everyday health outside of the clinic,” Desai said. “We’re so excited about this new capability to share your data from the health app directly with your doctor … and we look forward to expanding availability even more in the coming months.”

RELATED: Industry Voices—Personal health records are a linchpin to COVID-19 strategies

The second data sharing feature will give caregivers a digital hub where they can review the health and wellness data of their family members or other dependents.

With each user’s permission, the “Health Sharing” tool will again highlight longitudinal trends and deliver alerts if a change is detected. The caregiver can also quickly reach out to a dependent about their health with a single in-app button press that opens a messaging interface.

Apple’s health executive paid lip service to privacy concerns when outlining each of these data sharing and analysis features.

Sensitive health data are always encrypted when sent from device to device, Desai said, and the company will never have access to what is being delivered. Additionally, users will have granular control over which individual health metrics are being shared at any given time and can revoke access whenever they choose, she said.

Apple’s WWDC presentation also brought a renewed focus to injuries from a fall and the role devices can play in preventing them.

While the Apple Watch already supports fall detection, the company’s latest effort in this space instead uses the iPhone’s accelerometer to monitor daily activity and calculate the user’s risk of a fall.

RELATED: Best Buy's Lively app now available on Apple Watch as retailer pushes further into healthcare

By reviewing data collected through the company’s large Apple Heart and Movement Study, the company said it developed a new metric it calls “Walking Steadiness” that combines walking speed, gait distance, the time each foot spends on the ground and other readings.

Device owners will be able to review long-term trends or recent changes in their gait that could translate to increased fall risk. The company said it is also including guided exercises directly in the health app that users can follow to improve their steadiness and reduce the risk of a fall.

The majority of these new features will be made available to iPhone 6s and later devices with this year’s iOS 15 firmware update, the company said. Walking Steadiness is due to release in the fall but will only come to iPhone 8 and later smartphones.

Although the Apple Watch may not have been the primary focus of today’s health-related updates, that’s not to say the wearable was completely left out to dry.

With the watchOS 8 update, the company said its smartwatch will begin measuring respiratory rate during sleep to its list of sleep health measurements. The company also highlighted new additions to its Breathe mindfulness app and new celebrity workout offerings for its Fitness+ subscribers.