With Medical Records Tools, Apple Wades Deeper Into Digital Health

Xconomy San Francisco — 

[Updated 1/24/18 4:09 p.m. See below.] Apple said Wednesday it plans to introduce new features that will allow iPhone users to access parts of their medical records through the company’s Health app. The move could impact the interoperability of health records software and spark more competition in the health IT industry.

Cupertino, CA-based Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) said it has updated the Health app’s Health Records section to make it simple for patients to download data from hospitals and clinics where they’ve received care. The app sorts information into categories like medications, immunizations, and results of laboratory tests, Apple said. Users will also be able to arrange information chronologically so that, for instance, you could see your primary care physician added a new food allergy to your health record during the same appointment you were prescribed an EpiPen injector.

Apple said that to start, a dozen of the nation’s most prestigious healthcare providers will be able to transmit medical records from their computer systems to patients’ iPhones. This group of 12 organizations, which includes Johns Hopkins Medicine, UC San Diego Health, and Rush University Medical Center, will have the ability to send patients their health data starting Thursday, according to The New York Times. Apple said it plans to introduce the new functionality at additional hospital systems in the coming months.

Information stored in the Health app is encrypted and protected with the patient’s iPhone passcode, Apple said. The company will reportedly not be able to see users’ sensitive health data unless they choose to share it with Apple.

Several leading vendors of electronic health records (EHR) software have already developed online patient portals. These applications allow users to view some of the same personal health information that will be available through the new version of Apple’s Health app, such as lab test results and current health issues.

However, Apple said in its announcement of the new Health app features that until now, “patients’ medical records were held in multiple locations, requiring patients to log into each care provider’s website and piece together the information manually.”

EHR software vendors like Verona, WI-based Epic Systems have indeed received criticism in recent years for not doing more to ensure that clinicians can rapidly retrieve a patient’s complete health record, even when seeking treatment at a hospital he’s never been to before.

According to Epic’s website, 190 million people have a current medical record that was created and is managed using the company’s software. Last fall, Epic introduced tools within its patient portal, MyChart, allowing a user to share his health records with physicians who document information on paper or using software that isn’t able to receive data from the patient’s regular care provider.

Epic’s new “Share Everywhere” feature within MyChart wouldn’t seem useful for a patient who primarily receives care from a provider that uses software developed by Epic competitors, such as Cerner (NASDAQ: CERN) and Athenahealth (NASDAQ: ATHN), however. Epic, Cerner, and Athenahealth compete head-on with one another, but not with Apple; the three EHR vendors are among the firms working with Apple to make more patient health data accessible through iPhones, CNBC reported Wednesday. [This paragraph has been updated with information on the healthcare companies collaborating with Apple.]

It’s worth noting that a majority of the 12 organizations that will be able to start testing Apple’s new record-sharing tools later this week are Epic customers. The two companies are not strangers; for years Epic has supported versions of its records software that allow clinicians to use iPhones and iPads to look up and document patient information.

There will likely be speculation from those who closely follow the health IT sector about whether companies like Epic and Athenahealth should welcome Apple’s announcement as a step in the direction of improved software interoperability. Alternatively, EHR vendors may fear that fewer patients will use the companies’ patient portals, especially if Apple adds features to its Health app that let users do things like schedule doctor appointments and request prescription refills. [Updated to more accurately reflect the products with which Apple’s Health app could end up competing.]

Epic didn’t express any qualms in a statement from vice president of patient engagement Janet Campbell, e-mailed to Xconomy by a company spokesperson.

“We’re pleased to be a part of this collaboration as Apple works to make health data more accessible, portable and interoperable for patients,” Campbell said.