Apple must think beyond the watch to deliver a vision for digital health

With expectations for the Apple Watch running as high as any product launch in the company's history, most observers will be tracking sales closely to gauge its success and its impact on the emerging wearables market. We'd like to suggest a more significant and long-term measure of its impact: how it, and other wearables, might one day help fulfill the promise of digital health.

Measured this way, the Apple Watch, introduced amid great fanfare that's typical of Apple launches, and the entire wearables category has a long way to go. Apple's new device is part smartwatch and part health and fitness tracker, but the realization of digital health requires much more.

We believe the future of digital health monitoring and management will evolve far beyond the wrist—taking revolutionary new forms, embedded in new devices, materials and even objects that today have little or no association with health care.

Don't get us wrong, the Apple Watch is part of a technology revolution helping to make people more attuned to their overall health and fitness, but Apple and other technology companies have an opportunity to drive more meaningful changes.

Let's take a look beyond the watch at the future of wearables and digital health.

Future wearables will not be wearable

The Apple Watch reflects some of the key problems with wearables and the expectation they are going to transform how we monitor and manage our personal health.

On the first point, if consumers view the Apple Watch as primarily an extension of the smartphone, allowing the user to view and manage contacts, exchange messages and make mobile payments, for example, it could face the same consumer apathy that other smartwatches faced.

As far as health benefits, the Apple Watch delivers many of the same fitness tracking features available in other wearables, but fails to go much further simply because Apple has not figured out how to squeeze more advanced health monitoring capabilities into the device.

And that leads to the second point: wearables may never be able to transform health care until they deliver the functionality that gives consumers and their physicians a full set of metrics to monitor and manage a patient's health.

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That type of functionality requires a set of biometric sensors that can monitor a range of vital signs and do it with much better accuracy than today's early wearables. Doing it from your wrist with a watch is a tall order.

This is why we are seeing early iterations of sensors embedded in clothing, but we will also start to see them in everyday objects. Imagine your heart rate, respiration and body temperature monitored when you sit in a sensor-equipped car seat and grasp a sensor-equipped steering wheel.

Or imagine medical readings taken with sensors built into the toilet seat of your bathroom at home. Some sensor design firms say the ear is the best place to take biometric readings, and are perfecting the placement of sensors in ear buds.

There are even efforts underway to apply sensor technology directly to the skin in the form of digital tattoos—which we suppose is the ultimate wearable. There is still a long way to go before wearables can accurately deliver the most vital health information.

Digital health requires a shift in consumer behavior

Wearables that go beyond fitness tracking to encompass a variety of health-related monitoring will be a huge help to medical professionals faced with an aging population and the commensurate growth of chronic diseases.

While early health and fitness wearables have started to shift consumer expectations about what's possible in digital health, there is a long way to go in shifting attitudes and behaviors. Many wearables have not passed the usability test, ending up in the consumer's drawer after the initial use.

Older consumers will be even more resistant to change. Baby boomers, who comprise about a fourth of the U.S. population, will start to enter their 70s in the next year and become an increasing burden on the health-care system.

That generation is not likely to be among the early adopters for smartwatches unless those devices deliver a tangible cost and convenience benefit in managing their health care. We believe this generation is more likely to accept smart clothing or other everyday objects with embedded biometric sensors to simply avoid having to learn to use yet another gadget.

Apple and other digital health players will need to address these attitudinal and behavioral challenges, especially as the wearables industry transitions from fitness to health care.

The wearable must become a healthcare gateway

Now let's go beyond the wearable. To be truly game changing, the Apple Watch should act as a gateway to all relevant personal health information—from fitness performance, to a myriad of vital signs, to the consumer's personal medical history.

This would require consumers to connect their Apple Watches to an entire ecosystem of health information provided by their primary care physicians, specialists and other health professionals—but we're not there yet.

This is where Apple's HealthKit app could play a transformative role, in fact, more so than even its watch. HealthKit works by pooling data from multiple sources—whether wearables or glucose, heart and respiration monitors—so doctors can analyze health metrics and trends.

Apple has competition in this space from Google and Samsung, but a recent Reuters report found a majority of hospitals surveyed have begun or are considering pilot programs using HealthKit. This is a huge opportunity for Apple—in partnership with others—to begin to transform health care, not just with a watch, but by creating an ecosystem to make HealthKit the connector to comprehensive medical information that leads to better preventative care and overall health.

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Based on its track record of disrupting markets, building ecosystems and driving huge shifts in consumer behavior, we believe Apple can lead the shift to digital health, but it won't do it by simply launching a new smartwatch.

This time, Apple needs to think beyond the next device. It must convey a vision for digital health that is easy for consumers, physicians and other health-care stakeholders to support. The reward this time goes beyond selling more devices and seizing more market share.

The reward this time is leading the transformation of health-care delivery by creating more health-conscious consumers, triggering earlier diagnosis and detection of disease, advancing access to health information and care, and supporting new integrated and more connected health-care delivery systems.

Stig Albinus is global health-care chairman and Scott Friedman is global technology chairman at APCO Worldwide, an independent communication, stakeholder engagement and business strategy firm, where they collaborate to service clients in the digital health market.