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Apple keeps exploring (and scrapping) new ways to detect users’ health

Apple keeps exploring (and scrapping) new ways to detect users’ health


Apple has had big healthcare plans over the years beyond the Apple Watch, but its progress has been slower than it wanted.

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Illustration: The Verge

Apple’s been signaling for years that it wants to dive more deeply into healthcare. A lengthy new Bloomberg report details just how far the company wants to go, while also explaining why it just hasn’t gotten there yet.

Its biggest ambitions, says the article, have been slowed in part by concerns from leaders like Apple CEO Tim Cook and COO Jeff Williams. The executives reportedly worry that slip-ups in the high-stakes field of healthcare “could tarnish the perception of the company.”

Bloomberg’s write-up has lots of previously unknown tidbits about Apple’s health aims, sourced from anonymous employees. Here are the highlights:

  • The Apple Watch was supposed to monitor blood glucose from the start. But various challenges, including accuracy across skin tones and blood types, have reportedly held it back. The company is still trying and is spending “in the high tens of millions of dollars a year,” the report says. Development is being handled by the in-house Mac and iPhone chip design teams, and the feature may use AI to predict if someone could become diabetic. Still, it’s probably a long way off.
  • Apple created a secret company called Avolonte Health. The work to realize the Apple Watch blood glucose monitor was reportedly kicked off by the secretive company, starting in 2011. Apple worked hard to keep it out of the press. Only top company executives were in on the secret; Apple apparel was forbidden; and Cook would visit wearing a baseball cap, “pulled low to avoid detection,” according to the report.
  • The Watch was also supposed to launch with blood oxygen and EKG capabilities. But “component sourcing issues, battery, and reliability concerns” pushed the features out, Bloomberg writes.
  • Apple reportedly plans to add limited blood pressure monitoring to the Watch. Like the current temperature sensor, this won’t mean specific measurements and will instead identify trends. It may encourage users to journal what’s going on in their lives when their blood pressure’s on an upward trajectory.
  • Apple explored health-focused smartwatch accessories. The company considered things like a bathroom scale and a non-inflating blood pressure cuff (designed by Jony Ive), a sensor-laden watch strap to pull data from the bottom of wearers’ wrists, and separate accessories to track sleep, Bloomberg writes. None have shipped.
  • The Apple Watch almost came to Android. It was close to ready, but Apple canceled it because the Watch sells iPhones, according to the report.
  • Apple wants to get into the health clinic game. Bloomberg writes that Williams pitched Cook on health clinics inside Apple Stores and separate ones that would stand on their own. The idea was tested as the employee-only AC Wellness clinics that the report says were plagued by cost and management issues. The idea was for Apple doctors to match Apple Health data with more advanced in-clinic diagnostics data.
  • The Vision Pro will get health and fitness features. The report also says Apple means to integrate Fitness Plus, its video workouts service, into the Vision Pro headset down the line. That lines up with rumors that the company had planned to show off some Vision Pro fitness features focused on things like yoga and tai chi that weren’t ready when it was announced, as well as that it may debut an AI health coach next year.

The roadblocks to Apple as a healthcare company

Bloomberg shows an Apple that is at odds with itself over its place in health and fitness. It continues to imbue its products with health-focused features, like a possible AirPods hearing aid function or last year’s Apple Watch temperature sensors.

But Apple’s concerns about its image have reportedly kept it from going all-in, cautiously prodding at actually turning its products into diagnostics tools. Instead, the company has kept its focus on its core market of the “worried well,” who aren’t sick but watch for signs that they are.

Apple also has to contend with a competitive environment that’s seen Amazon realize a clinic program that, Bloomberg writes, at least partially resembles what Apple wanted to do. Another obstacle is getting FDA approval for its health technologies, which is a difficult but necessary step it must take before it can make definitive health claims, rather than offering insights and recommending customers check with their doctors when something is trending in the wrong direction.