Claire Bugos is a freelance health and science reporter and writer and a 2020 National Association of Science Writers travel fellow. 
Nick Blackmer is a fact checker and researcher with extensive background in health content.
Courtesy of Apple
The iOS15 software launched this week, allowing Apple users to take advantage of these updates to the Apple Health app.
People who use smartphones and wearable devices are able to track key health metrics like heart rate and time asleep. But it can be challenging to figure out how that information fits into checkups at the doctor’s office. With an update to the Apple Health app, doctors will now be able to merge the two to gain a more holistic view of a patient’s health.
In a sweeping update of the app, the company will give people more opportunities to make sense of their health data. They will be able to pinpoint certain trends, like blood oxygen levels and cholesterol level changes, to share with caregivers, family members, and clinicians.
The company announced the updates at the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) last week. It will release the health app as part of its upcoming iOS 15 software launch, scheduled for this fall. Other new features will include a metric to assess your risk of falling, a menstruation tracker, and trend analysis tools that help you make sense of your health metrics over time.
“The future is now,” Paul Testa, MD, chief medical information officer at NYU Langone Health, tells Verywell. “That data feeds seamlessly into a smartphone and into the electronic health record, and then into reports that can be viewed and reviewed by not just their doctor but by an entire care team.”
Experts say the ability to track your health changes over time using the app will bring great benefits.
“We've seen time and time again that when you look at information, when you look at the data, you can change the trajectory of it,” Testa says.
When you visit your care team, they may be able to measure how your health is faring that day. But when you continuously track metrics like sleep and heart rate over a longer period, you can get a better view of your individual health and how it changes over time. That way, instead of gauging your health based on a national average, you might see how you’ve progressed over the past six months.
“The ability for patients to, for example, pin a particular value, like their hemoglobin A1C and trend it over time in the app is exquisitely important,” Testa says. “That is how we’re going to treat disease in the future—by engaging our patients and looking at the data with them.”
When family members, caregivers, coaches, and clinicians engage with a person’s health over time, it can encourage a patient to be more mindful of health. Having a peer support network can help people stay on track with their health goals.
“For older adults, or for people with dementia or Alzheimer’s, their family members might really benefit from knowing honest information,” Liao Yue, PhD, assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Texas at Arlington, tells Verywell. “It will be nice to the children to know about their parent’s behavior and then check on them.”
Several healthcare groups—like Kaiser and NYU Langone, where Testa works—already use apps to help patients access their medical records. And since 2018, Apple has allowed users to bring in information from at least 39 health systems.
With the new Apple feature, data collected in the Health App and electronic health records will no longer be siloed. Testa says merging these records can help clinicians and patients get a more well-rounded view of their health.
Apple says it will work with six electronic medical records companies in the U.S., including Cerner, which controls a quarter of the market. Health systems working with these medical record companies could open any data the patient shares without going through a different app.
According to the company, all this data is encrypted and the company will never see any of its users’ data.
The app also provides another way for people to prove COVID-19 vaccination. The health institution that delivered your COVID-19 vaccine, or other immunizations and labs, will be able to verify your results and records. That information can be downloaded into the app and possibly used when you need proof of vaccination.
If you use Apple products, like the iPhone or Apple Watch, you may soon be able to share information securely with your loved ones and doctors. The apps allow you to track health metrics like heart rate, daily steps, and blood glucose. Combining this data with information collected by your care team could give a fuller view of how your health changes over time.
Liao, who studies wearable devices and daily behavioral activity, says that offering people their health data is often not enough for it to be useful. Many people may not know how to make sense of the numbers and trends.
“There’s a fine line between the data versus insights,” Liao says.
The way that people interact with health data can be skewed based on their individual conditions and health status, as well as their general ability to navigate data and their culture.
“We have new devices and new sensors coming out every day," Liao says. "And Apple and Google have been releasing some exciting features just directly to consumers, but research really needs to demonstrate what's the value of providing people with this kind of data. What are the right messages or insights we should be giving to people?”
It can be important to seek input from a healthcare professional to understand how the information you see in the Health App relates to your overall well-being.
“Health data is a little bit different than standalone data—that's something like your shopping habits or your favorite movies. It has to be consumed in context,” Testa says.
As wearable sensors, like the iPhone and Apple Watch, become more ingrained in healthcare systems, Liao says care teams will need to be better trained on how to best understand and use those insights.
“I think our clinicians, right now are not trained right to read those data or those patterns,” Liao says. She adds that while some tech-savvy physicians might be comfortable using Apple’s health data, there isn’t systematic training to ensure all clinicians understand how to best use it.
The gaining popularity of wearable devices raises concerns about how the digital divide might increase already rampant disparities in health care.
“If I have access to these apps, the phone, the watch, then my doctor might be able to have a better understanding about my life,” Liao says. “Maybe that enables me to have a better quality of care, just because I can afford these things and can share this with my physician.”
One way to make the tools more accessible, Testa says, is to allow users to access them on a secure web browser. When designing the health app for NYU Langone, Testa says his team needed to find solutions for people who lack phone access or own mobile devices that can’t download apps.
“We needed to make sure to meet our patients where they live—not just physically, but also where they live digitally," Testa says. "And some of them live only on the web, and not on apps."
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Greiwe J, Nyenhuis SM. Wearable technology and how this can be implemented into clinical practiceCurr Allergy Asthma Rep. 2020;20(8). doi:10.1007/s11882-020-00927-3

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