Why the Apple Watch is still not the health tracker of our dreams

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This morning, Apple unveiled their long-awaited Apple Watch (again). This time, however, there is an actual release date — April 10 — and pricing information. They start at $349, and go all the way beyond $10,000, and you can use them to read email, send messages, even open up doors to your house remotely.

But what about tracking your health? "The problem is that the watch itself isn't loaded with sensors for medical stuff. Heart rate is not particularly exciting," said Dr. Eric Topol, a cardiologist and the director of Scripps Translational Science Institute in San Diego. "If the watch itself was sensing things like [blood oxygen levels or blood pressure], it would make it more attractive for medical research or for clinical use."


But what is interesting, he said, is that Watch users will be able to easily look at data generated by other gadgets that are packed with sensors that measure those kinds of clinically relevant vitals, plus things like blood glucose. (The HealthKit app on the phone already does this too. The Watch just brings some of that information on your wrist.) Right now, Apple products "are just serving as a conduit for lots of other interesting apps and sensors." That's how Apple built ResearchKit, too, Apple's new open-source platform that makes it easier for scientists to get more frequent and accurate data around some chronic diseases.

While that might help researchers make new discoveries in the future, where does that leave us now? Today, Apple tried to sell its Watch as a virtual coach. It can set activity goals for you, and tell you when you've been sitting too long. But that kind of prodding isn't really all that new. Fitbit reminds you when you're about to hit your daily goal, for instance. If I'm going to dish out $10,000 for a slick new Watch, it better come with more than just a fancy wristband and a seemingly indestructible watch face. I'm going to want a personalized, virtual Atul Gawande/Jillian Michaels on my wrist at all times. It's not there yet.

To cook that up, then, Apple would have to develop (or create the incentive to develop) software to make sense of the data we generate across very many different apps and devices: our digital scales, food logs, sleep monitors, period trackers, genetic data. The list goes on. Humans won't be good at integrating data from multiple apps and gadgets connected to their Watch or computer. We'd need a tool for that.  "That's when it becomes of any real value to an individual," Topol said.


Right now, there doesn't seem to be anything to suggest that Apple is going that way, beyond their HealthKit app, which monitors things like activity, nutrition, sleep, and vitals — but not in a comprehensive, here's-how-these-things-interact-to-make-you-feel kind of way.

If Apple did have a stronger play at work here, there's a chance they might need to go through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the government agency that oversees medical devices. It's been reported that they've already been in close contact with the FDA in preparation for the launch of the Apple Watch. If they, or another company, did develop a platform to string different sources of health data together to provide actionable insights, it's likely that they would have to go through the FDA. "But that," says Topol, "wouldn't be a major undertaking."


At this point, Topol said he wouldn't buy an Apple Watch for himself or recommend one to a patient. "It might be a nice fashion watch, but it doesn't do much." So while the three pricing tiers might give you a case of class anxiety, it'll be years before Apple Watch will be able to tell you whether you've got real, clinical anxiety.

One thing that it seems to be getting right, though, is privacy. According to the company, Apple will never see your health data, which might make users more likely to adopt the Apple Watch as a health-tracking device.


Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.

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