Apple just hired the star of Stanford's digital health efforts

Key Points
  • Sumbul Desai is joining Apple's growing health team in a senior role.
  • Desai is the executive director of Stanford's center for digital health.
  • This is the latest signal that Apple is taking its health business seriously.
Sumbal Desai

Apple has quietly scooped up Dr. Sumbul Desai, the executive director of Stanford Medicine's center for digital health, who led a groundbreaking telemedicine project there and has been overseeing a project to promote health uses for the Apple Watch.

Desai will serve in a senior role at Apple in the growing health team but will continue to see patients at Stanford, said people familiar with the move.

It's unclear whether Desai will oversee the company's existing digital health efforts, such as its software frameworks ResearchKit, HealthKit and CareKit, or head up an unannounced project. Either way, the people said, it demonstrates that Apple is taking its health ambitions seriously.

At Stanford, Desai was involved in a number of digital health projects with big tech companies and start-ups, including Apple. At Stanford's digital health center, she worked with Silicon Valley technology companies to test and develop new tools in collaboration with the university's medical experts.

She also devised the strategy for Stanford's first virtual primary care clinic, called ClickWell Care. That proved to be an early success and is used as a case study for the medical industry, especially in reaching an at-risk population that wasn't utilizing primary care all that much. Within a year, some 55% to 60% of 4,000 clinic visits were done virtually.

The center is also accepting proposals for health care research projects focused on innovative uses for Apple Watches. In addition to providing up to 1,000 of the watches, the center will award $10,000 to the winning project for one year, starting in April.

Her research interests involve finding new ways to use technology to improve the patient experience in health care, which overlaps with Apple's strategy in the space.

Desai isn't the first high-profile doctor scooped up by the iPhone maker. Stanford pediatric endocrinologist Rajiv Kumar joined the team in June of last year, alongside the medical team from a start-up called Gliimpse by way of acquisition. And Apple's vice president of medical technology Michael O'Reilly is a trained anesthesiologist.

Prior to going to medical school, Desai worked as a strategist at The Walt Disney Company and a public policy research fellow at Kaiser Family Foundation.