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Apple's health app may reshape patient engagement

As part of its newest iOS release, Apple's health app will provide iPhone users access to their health records, which could encourage other smartphone companies to do the same.

The new push by smartphone manufacturers like Apple and Samsung is to encourage patients to use their devices to view their medical health records. The intent is to highlight the availability of new features that can set each of them apart from their competition. After several failed attempts to attract patients and get them to use their mobile devices to actively manage their health records, Apple is changing the strategy from having patients enter and manage their data to bringing the data out of hospital systems and presenting it to them. If Apple's health app is successful, others will likely follow Apple's approach, and patients may change the way they view and interact with their personal health records.

Apple has only been able to pull data from a set number of hospitals due to the availability of a standardized method of health data access that top EHR vendors agreed to and adopted. Because of interoperability efforts by Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR), Apple has been able to overcome some of the serious burdens that many experienced in the past when trying to pull patient data into mobile apps. Apple's innovative approach to access and manage PHI will change the way patients interact with and see their health data for the better with very little in their way to stop them.

The announcement of Apple's health app is part of the company's pre-release and beta version of iOS 11.3. The new functionality connects consumers to their health records at participating hospitals and delivers the information in the mobile health app. The mobile app will provide data that has been living within the hospital systems and includes data around patient's allergies, vitals, immunizations, lab results, medication and procedures.

"Our goal is to help consumers live a better day. We've worked closely with the health community to create an experience everyone has wanted for years -- to view medical records easily and securely right on your iPhone," Apple COO Jeff Williams said in a statement. He added, "By empowering customers to see their overall health, we hope to help consumers better understand their health and help them lead healthier lives."

The access and processing of data from different EHR systems and hospitals was resolved by adopting the FHIR engine. This platform, which was developed under the HL7 organization and released in 2013, helped create a new standard that is able to describe the different resources and APIs required for exchanging health information.

It is likely that others will follow Apple's lead on connecting to hospital EHRs using FHIR. Vendors like Google and Samsung will roll out native apps that can use FHIR to pull hospital and medical practice data onto their devices. This convenience will be valuable to consumers as it eliminates the complexity that has been previously required to get accurate data into the apps.

Patients will likely begin to see the use of virtual assistants to help interact with their health data. Google Voice, Siri, Cortana and Alexa will finally have connectivity to raw and comprehensive up-to-date data. Examples such as asking the voice-enabled devices and smartphones to set reminders for medications or appointments, or to read recent lab results will finally be a reality.

Another area that will start to pop up in mobile phones is health alerts. With access to health data, the health app can alert patients to relevant adjustments they need to be made aware of. This feature will be attractive to most patients as they will likely be interested to hear the arrival of their lab results or changes to their charts.

Patients are also likely to see more services being delivered to them when vendors have access to their data. While Apple may not directly advertise medical services to patients due to privacy controls, patients may decide to opt for services such as recommendations on meal plans or lifestyle coaches.

Apple's health app taps directly into hospital data and allows iPhone customers to interact with their health data, which could reignite patient engagement and further encourage the likes of Amazon, Google and Microsoft to enter this space and innovate.

Delivering patient health records on a smartphone is nothing new -- many apps are available today that offer that functionality. One main difference between the countless health apps and Apple's health app is how data makes it to the app. By having a direct connection to the data source, regardless of EHR or hospital, patients are likely to find this new model much more effective and engaging. However, despite the promise this new approach offers, concerns of data privacy and potential abuse of data access to drive targeted marketing and sales are likely to be top of mind for many.

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