Integrating Devices, Patients, and Doctors: HealthTap Releases an App for the Apple Watch

Posted on April 16, 2015 I Written By

Andy Oram is an editor at O'Reilly Media, a highly respected book publisher and technology information provider. An employee of the company since 1992, Andy currently specializes in open source, software engineering, and health IT, but his editorial output has ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. His articles have appeared often on EMR & EHR and other blogs in the health IT space. Andy also writes often for O'Reilly's Radar site (http://oreilly.com/) and other publications on policy issues related to the Internet and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Conferences where he has presented talks include O'Reilly's Open Source Convention, FISL (Brazil), FOSDEM, and DebConf.

Doesn’t HealthTap want the same thing as all the other web sites and apps crowding into the health space? Immediate and intimate connections between doctors and patients. Accurate information at your fingertips, tailored to your particular condition. Software that supports your goals where automation makes sense and gets out of the way at other times.

HealthTap pursues this common vision in its own fashion. This week, its announcement of an app for Apple Watch pulls together the foundations HealthTap has been building and cleverly uses the visceral experience that the device on your wrist offers to meet more of the goals of modern, integrated health care.

Sample screen of HealthTap app for Apple Watch

HealthTap app for Apple Watch

The HealthTap Foundation

I have written repeatedly about HealthTap (having followed them even before they launched in 2011), so here I will just lay out elements of their service that pertain directly to this week’s Apple Watch announcement.

Doctors have voluntarily contributed a huge set of information to HealthTap: answers to questions from individuals, instructions, even videos. Most people signing in to HealthTap can find the answer they need to a question for free, without even consulting a doctor. But HealthTap also offers a reasonably priced Concierge service. Each patient fills out a profile similar to what you often give on paper when you enter a doctor’s waiting room (health conditions, medications, allergies, and so forth). HealthTap uses this information personalize the company’s free service, and gives it to doctors during their virtual consultations in the paid service.

In pursuit of better lifestyles, HealthTap also offers a number of checklists of healthy behaviors. General checklists are linked to health topics, and can be discovered when browsing or searching on HealthTap. Anyone can use the checklists for free. You can also sign up for alerts to do these activities–perhaps two to seven tasks per day. A more personal experience follows each virtual consult, where the concierge doctor creates a custom checklist.

The Apple Watch Contribution

What were watches were invented for, if not convenience? (No need to walk to some other place in the building that holds a clock.) The popularization of pocket watches, followed by wristwatches, proves that our obsession with having instant information in front of us is nothing new. But Apple Watch is more than a convenience or a window onto the world: it represents a different way of interacting with a computer, while employing light sensors and other devices to take in personal information that can have significant health impacts. HealthTap approaches Apple Watch in this open-minded way and to integrate cleanly with the device. And they are not alone in anticipating its popularity.

First of all, HealthTap App for Apple Watch offers access to the information on HealthTap. This is garden-variety surfing–except that the content is unusually high quality, being created and peer reviewed by the more than 68,000 U.S.-licensed doctors in the HealthTap Medical Expert Network. The service starts getting interesting when the watch can deliver reminders to act on your personal checklist of healthy behaviors. The watch’s delivery mechanisms–which can include a tiny jolt to the wrist–make the reminders much more noticeable than any other computerized interaction, even the vibration of a phone (which may or may not be near your body at the time).

You can also report back whether you acted on a reminder, and can send a reminder from watch to another, which allows family members and other caretakers to gently prod a patient to take action.

Naturally, HealthTap App for Apple Watch also offers a channel for the key HealthTap service, a connection to your own doctor or a doctor who is available on demand. You can speak a question into the phone or, with a single tap of a button on the watch, enter a request for a doctor and perform the video consult with your associated iPhone.

Virtual consults on HealthTap resemble those offered by services like Doctor on Demand, but when you use the HealthTap app you can share any information stored on you by HealthTap with the doctor who answers. They can check your profile (medications, etc.) from HealthTap along with data from HealthKit and Apple Watch. Doctor consults on HealthTap are integrated into the company’s “end-to-end” virtual care service, which serves as a resource for patients whether they are seeking information, virtual care, or ways to take action and track health progress.

Of course, before the watch delivers the information it collects to your doctor, along with whatever else you store in HealthKit, you must give permission. This can be done by tapping the screen and selecting which kinds of data you want to share with doctors.

Some information stored by Apple Watch on sleep and exercise can help a doctor advise you. But currently, most data offered by Apple services comes in a rather raw form–long records of data–that doctors have trouble ingesting and using. HealthTap is currently tackling this area simplifying the data interfaces doctors have access to when seeing a patients virtually. It presents an opportunity for further research and development to put this data in context.

In short, I’m impressed at how HealthTap has taken up the unique Apple Watch strengths and exploited almost every aspect of its technology. To round out HealthKit’s current offering, an Apple Watch app for doctors allows them to manage reminders and appointments and to submit ratings in their spare time to HealthTap’s medication list.

What Does it All Add Up To So Far?

Let’s step back and look at the themes at play in HealthTap App for Apple Watch. First we can point to integration. With Apple Watch, the app puts all the services an individual wants (simple care plans in the form of checklists, basic health information, access to doctors, and data collected by devices) into one interface. Along with that is immediacy, which means ultimately that you get advice affecting your health right when you need it–the most effective moment to get it.

Then there’s data exposure. Your doctor gets all the data available, should you permit it. They can also use your profile to fine-tune the message they give you. Data drives decisions in health care, so smart use of data is critical to a successful app. Now, HealthTap is not a big data company (not yet), because their first priority is to respect the patient’s privacy. But for the individual patient, the Apple Watch app exposes data in a useful way.

But above all we see engagement. The foundation of health care–save for the rare person who can manage his health all by himself–is the relationship between patient and caregivers, whether they be professionals or trusted friends and family. The instant access and reminder features (if used right) enhance these relationships. The app can also engage the patient with automated reminders, which also play a role in health.

Apple Watch, of course, is a high-end product–a lot of wealth to wave around while you’re walking down the street. It’s not for everyone, but it should appeal to people who already sign up for the HealthTap Concierge service. (Remember that HealthTap also offers a broad range of free information.) It’s a gamble worth trying.

Ron Gutman, founder and CEO of HealthTap, says they are always evolving toward a vision of a complete end-to-end experience, while also making it as easy as possible to contact a doctor quickly and possibly avoid a trip to an urgent care clinic or the emergency room. As they show with the Apple Watch app, they can use technology creatively toward these goals.