Apple Watch unveiled, but health-related details scarce

Apple debuted its first wearable device, called Apple Watch, Tuesday afternoon--boasting that it's the most "personalized device" the company has ever created.

In announcing Apple Watch on stage, CEO Tim Cook said the device is, among other things, a "comprehensive health and fitness device."

The device offers gyroscopes, several sensors and an accelerometer for heartbeat and pulse rate monitoring. The watch, expected to be available in early 2015, can provide info on fitness aspects such as geographic elevation for runners. It will have two different apps: one for fitness and one for workouts.

However, the watch is not a stand-alone device and would have to be tethered to an iPhone. 

The big focus, from the live presentation in Cupertino, California, was on user design customization features of the watch. Though Cook did talk briefly about the health aspect of the watch, he said there was not enough time to delve deeper. He noted that he expects big innovations from developers tapping Apple's WatchKit, which will allow for the development of third-party apps.

There also was no specific talk about Apple's HealthKit platform and healthcare strategy, but industry watchers remain confident that Apple will do for healthcare what it did for mobile computing devices, such as smartphones and laptops.

"With HealthKit, Apple has initiated a consumer movement to break down the walled gardens of closed HIT systems using open application programming interfaces," Keith Figlioli, senior vice president of healthcare informatics at Premier and member of the Office of the National Coordinator's Health IT Standards Committee, said in a statement. "This move will allow users to share health and fitness data across applications on a secure, protected platform that they control, and should unleash a wave of developer innovation to create new wellness apps that improve the health of communities."

Figlioli added that APIs will be "more the norm as consumers demand liquid data that can sync their health and fitness data with information maintained by their clinicians, including data currently locked in proprietary electronic health records."

Apple already is working with the Rochester, Minnesota-based Mayo Clinic on its HealthKit offering, and reportedly has talked with a number of other hospitals, including Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and the Cleveland Clinic. Additionally, several major health systems using EHR vendor Epic's software aim to integrate health and fitness data from HealthKit into Epic's MyChart personal health record. Kaiser Permanente reportedly is piloting a number of mobile apps that leverage HealthKit.

One industry watcher noted that the sensors in Apple Watch are not exactly new and not overly plentiful, but said he expects future product offerings to include more sensor tech.

"Now that the iPhone can measure distance and elevation changes, everyone who wears one will be in essence wearing a sophisticated pedometer," Adam C. Powell, Ph.D., president of Payer+Provider Syndicate, a management advisory and operational consulting firm, told FierceMobileHealthcare in an email. "Although this may present a competitive challenge to several wearables companies, the inclusion of these features will likely result in the wider adoption of quantified self participation."

Added Powell: "Unlike other health-only wearables, which have been disadopted by many of their users, smartwatches have the potential to maintain long-term engagement by offering their users multiple sources of value. There is nothing new about a wearable heart rate monitor, but when a heart rate monitor is combined with a calendar, a map, and a notification platform, it has the potential to become compelling enough for more people to perpetually wear."

Powell said that while none of the products announced are revolutionary, they have the potential to be widely used.

"That itself may make all the difference," he said.

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