As Apple pushes deeper into health care with the Apple Watch, the company is developing a plan to help people who are recovering from knee and hip replacement surgeries.
On Monday, Apple announced a partnership with medical device company Zimmer Biomet, to combine a new app along with health-tracking data from the smartwatch to help determine why certain patients recover faster than others from the procedures. The companies are also working together on a clinical study.
Apple has its sights set square on the $3 trillion U.S. health-care sector and is continuously exploring medical applications for the watch, most recently adding an FDA-cleared EKG sensor. When it comes to orthopedics, more than than 1 million Americans get knee and hip replacements every year, and Zimmer Biomet is among the biggest manufacturers of reconstructive products.
Apple and Zimmer Biomet have created a mobile app called mymobility, which aims to help guide patients through their surgery to improve their experience, as well as their health outcomes. It includes educational resources, exercise videos and a way for patients to contact their surgeon and care team with questions and concerns.
The Apple Watch will track steps and heart rate data, allowing patients to share that information with their doctors to provide a clearer picture of how they're doing after surgery and to analyze potential setbacks. For example, if a patient is concerned about the level of pain, the care team could see that the patient walked five miles the previous day, so the problem may be overexertion rather than a serious complication.
Apple and Zimmer Biomet are hoping to enroll 10,000 people in the U.S. in the study. The app is initially available only to patients who enroll in the study, but it will eventually be rolled out to everyone, a spokesperson for Zimmer Biomet told CNBC. Participants who don't own an Apple Watch will receive one for the duration of the project. Fitbit has also looked at using its fitness trackers to monitor patients after surgery.
Zimmer Biomet CEO Bryan Hanson said in a statement that the partnership with Apple marks "one of the largest evidence-gathering clinical studies in orthopedic history."
Apple Chief Operating Officer Jeff Williams said in a separate statement that the new app lets patients and doctors connect in a way that was "not previously possible through traditional in-person visits."
The study is the second of its kind for Apple. In September 2017, the company kicked off its Heart Study in partnership with Stanford University, testing to see if it could detect in people a type of heart health irregularity called atrial fibrillation.
Williams told CNBC in November that Apple is open to working with some of the largest health-care companies in the space and said, "We have taken a thoughtful approach to this and embraced the medical community."
Apple is tackling among the biggest and fastest growing segments of medicine. Given the aging of the population, the number of people who receive knee and hip replacement surgeries is expected to rise in coming years.
Dan Williamson, Zimmer Biomet's group president for joint reconstruction, told CNBC a goal for the study is to "reduce anxiety for the patient and make sure the surgeon has the level of visibility they need."
Apple's hardware rival Fitbit worked with Cedars Sinai hospital in Los Angeles to figure out the optimal amount of activity for people recovering from hip and knee replacements. They reported a magic number of 1,000 steps, meaning those that reached the milestone in the days after the procedure were usually discharged sooner than those who fell short.
In another medical use for the Apple Watch, Apple is also working with the University of North Carolina's researchers on a new study to track binge eating.