Apple is making an ambitious foray into healthcare with a primary care program that will connect users to the tech giant’s doctors using its devices. However, the company is struggling to get the program off the ground due to inaccurate reporting of data, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Codenamed Casper, the subscription-based program was conceived shortly after the Apple Watch was launched in 2015. It will reportedly offer primary-care services and continuous health monitoring. Data collected by devices like the Apple Watch will be made available to clinicians.
As part of the project, the tech giant took over employee health clinics, which were then run by a startup, and turned them into testbeds for new health services. It started testing the program among its employees in 2016. A year later, it hired Stanford University‘s Sumbul Desai to helm the project.
The effort continues today but Apple is struggling to move past the preliminary stage of development, people familiar with the effort told the Wall Street Journal. Employees involved in the project are concerned that internal data about the clinics’ performance has been inaccurate or compiled haphazardly. Employees who departed the project also complain that they were discouraged to voice critical feedback.
Informants pointed to a 2019 meeting during which a mid-level manager raised questions about data. Desai reportedly responded angrily, causing some people in the meeting to conclude that critical questions were unwelcome. The manager quit weeks later. Documents suggested that the episode contributed to her departure.
But a spokesperson for the company denies that there are issues of data integrity: “This matter was investigated thoroughly and the allegations could not be substantiated.” The spokesman adds that Apple is proud of Desai’s work and that she has been instrumental in much of its healthcare work. (Related: Apple and Google promise to shut down their coronavirus trackers when the pandemic ends… but does anyone believe them?)
Data supporting Apple’s new health app is misleading
Desai, who was involved in a number of digital health projects for well-known tech companies before being tapped by Apple, is spearheading the development of a new healthcare app called HealthHabit.
The app connects users with clinicians and encourages them to set health challenges, such as “I will exercise more this week.” It includes a program where users with hypertension can connect with health coaches. Coaches can access patients’ health data to suggest healthy habits.
It is being tested on Apple employees in California, but participation has been low since its launch six months ago. Only half of the employees involved in the trial have downloaded the app as of May, The Wall Street Journal reported. Engagement is also very low among those who have installed the app.
Informants disclosed that employees are concerned about the integrity of the data and analysis used for supporting the app’s hypertension program. Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer, who is overseeing the company’s health unit, reportedly praised the clinics’ results in treating hypertension during a presentation for all Apple health employees last March.
Williams claimed that 91 percent of the patients in Apple’s clinics with severe stage-two hypertension experienced significant improvements. But some employees fear that the figure overstates the clinics’ success.
Rival companies that also offer hypertension apps have disclosed lower rates of success. Hello Heart Inc. reported that only 23 percent of stage two hypertension patients experienced significant improvements in their blood pressure after six weeks of using its app. Livongo, on the other hand, said that only one-third of patients with stage one hypertension became better after six weeks. Internal documents show that Williams’ data does not include a time frame.
The Apple spokesman notes that the data cited by Williams comes from an internal pilot test. The representative also says that other firms analyze their data differently, hence the big disparity.
This is not the first time that a tech giant tried to venture into healthcare. In 2018, Amazon partnered with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase to create Haven, a nonprofit that aimed to reduce healthcare costs, but the companies shut down the organization three years later.
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