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Apple is giving medical researchers and app developers new ways to prevent diseases

  • Consumers can give permission for app developers to access their medical records.
  • Apple is using the various sensors on its devices to go deeper in the health market.
  • New tools can help researchers track Parkinson's patients.
Jeff Williams
David Paul Morris | Getty Images
Jeff Williams

Apple said on Monday that its new health records service, which lets patients store personal medical data on their phone, will soon be open to app developers and researchers.

Consumers who choose to make their encrypted data available to third-party apps, will share that information with developers working on tools like medication tracking, disease management, nutrition planning and medical research. Any data that's shared will require a user's permission and does not flow through Apple's servers, the company said.

At Apple's annual developer show, WWDC, the company highlighted some uses of health and fitness technology on stage. But the details surrounding the new use of medical records were only shared through a post on the company's newsroom site.

The announcement is a followup to the introduction of a health records offering, which Apple unveiled in January, letting consumers turn their iPhone into a storage bank of medical information, including medication and lab tests. That's all part of an Apple product called HealthKit.

"With the potential of health records information paired with HealthKit data, patients are on the path to receiving a holistic view of their health," said Jeff Williams, Apple's chief operating officer, in the statement.

Health data has long been challenging for patients to access because it's typically scattered across various medical institutions on a host of different proprietary systems. Developers also struggle to incorporate this information into their apps, as it tends to be expensive and time-consuming to connect with all the relevant providers and health records vendors.

Medisafe, an app that is currently used by about half a million people to track their medications, was one of the first to build an integration with Apple health records to automatically import patients' medications, rather than relying on manual entry.

Once it can access the data, Medisafe determines whether any of the medications are unsafe to take in combination. it also reminds users of when to take their meds, which the company hopes will prevent some 100,000 fatalities, just in the U.S., from medication management issues.

"This will finally allow for frictionless and accurate information transfer from the physician's office to the patient's phone," Omri Shor, the company's CEO, told CNBC.

Williams has previously described Apple's vision for its health service as "empowering the individual," starting with providing access to their medical information.

Sensors track diseases

Another update for health developers is specifically related to tracking Parkinson's Disease. Researchers have sought access to motion tracking sensors, including the accelerometer and gyroscope because they could be useful for analyzing how Parkison's patients are responding to their medications between visits.

These sensors are available on the Apple Watch, and Apple wants to make it possible for researchers to use the devices to remotely track their patients' tremors and other symptoms, and adjust medication if necessary.

The company is also opening up vision tests on the iPhone X, so researchers can get an early glimpse of potential damage with the macula or retina of the eye. The camera can guide users through the test, making sure that they're holding the device correctly.

Apple is offering a similar hearing test feature with AirPods and a speech recognition tool for medical researchers to detect speech issues associated with conditions like a stroke.