Is Apple going to spend the rest of its life selling phones, or will it take the opportunity to improve the health of humanity?

Apple has clearly begun to position itself — at least, as clearly as the company ever does — in terms of its future in the field of health care services, an extremely complex environment, but one where it has very much to offer.

The company’s increased focus on health is an open secret: in addition to setting up a laboratory to work on the area and organizing the largest clinical study on cardiac health with Stanford University, involving more than 400,000 participants monitoring their heart rate with the Apple Watch, Apple has hired 40 to 50 doctors, as well as launching other devices to monitor users during sleep, the period when most people recharge their watches.

This increased orientation toward services, seen as one of the solutions to its dependence on hardware in a progressively mature market, as well as its strong commitment to users’ data privacy, which it makes much of, bringing it into a clear confrontation with the rest of the technology industry, makes Apple the perfect candidate to try to revolutionize health care: since the release of the latest version of the Apple Watch, users have expressed their gratitude, while companies like AliveCor or Cardiogram have created products and services around it.

Undoubtedly, the future of health care depends to a large extent on the development of monitoring technologies, as well as on the machine learning needed to detect possible conditions or problems. Some algorithms based on the heart rate captured by the Apple Watch through photoplethysmography have already proven to be more accurate in diagnosing heart problems than specialized and more intrusive devices such as EKG bands, or even, in some cases, better than doctors, pointing to a future where many of our health parameters will be monitored in real time, and only situations when an algorithm detects any possible problem will require the attention of a physician.

Specialties such as cardiology or diabetes, which require data monitoring to treat, are clearly areas for technology companies to enter, and Apple is developing products in both. Causing some 17.65 million deaths in 2016, cardiovascular disorders are the most frequent cause of death in the world, while diabetes, with 3.19 million, is ranked as the fourth. Any progress in this direction could have a very significant impact on a large market. On the other hand, we could soon see a situation in which people able to afford the expensive products of a company such as Apple would have access to better health care and with adequate guarantees for their privacy, while those who cannot or do not want to pay for these products would be condemned to traditional approaches whereby one waits until one is already unwell, or to putting themselves in the hands of companies likely to market their data.

Will Apple evolve from being a consumer electronics company to one solely specialized in providing health services? If it decides to go down this road, it would have to generate a whole specialized ecosystem involving hospitals, insurers, wearable manufacturers, etc., as well as, quite possibly, acquire some specialized companies, as it did with Finland’s Beddit, whose sleep control band it has just launched, or with Gliimpse, a platform to manage users’ health-related information.

Taking into account the loyalty of its users and the reasons they buy its products, Apple would an almost unbeatable advantage it it decided to focus on health care. According to Tim Cook, this could be the company’s greatest contribution to humanity. Perhaps Steve Jobs’ famous comment when trying to attract John Sculley from Pepsi to the company: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want the opportunity to change the world?” should be changed to: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling phones, or do you want the opportunity to improve the health of humanity?”


(En español, aquí)