If Apple Wants to Build a Health App, it Needs to Look at Costs

Apple has reportedly formed a “secretive team” to build a healthcare app that would allow customers to store and organize their health data, lab results and other clinical information on their devices.

It’s a daunting quest that has befuddled everyone else who’s embarked on it, including Google. But I’m happy to see Apple taking it on. After all, they cracked the code on digital music, upending an industry that had been burdened, like healthcare, with Byzantine legal and recordkeeping challenges.

If they succeed, nobody would stand to benefit more than employers. I doubt there’s a single CEO who’s not preoccupied by the relentlessly rising costs of keeping their people healthy. The price of quality coverage devours our margins, but opting for stingy coverage means our best people start sending out resumes. Any CEO would agree: a low-cost app helping employees effectively manage their health would be a no-brainer.

But, by focusing on medical records, Apple may be ignoring an essential element in the healthcare equation: insurance. And if so, it’s highly unlikely their app will truly help drive down health costs.

“If Apple could put insurance information in our pockets, it would revolutionize the way we consume, manage and pay for healthcare–much like it did for music.”

Getting the full picture
Let’s say Apple builds this app. When you see a new specialist, you could provide your full health history on your phone, presumably with just a few quick taps – no more waiting for your primary doctor to fax over a stack of records. It could also help manage your health, alerting you when you’re due for a checkup or a prescription refill.

But for most of us, record transfers and appointment reminders are fairly small parts of our health decision-making processes. The big decisions are determined by our understanding of how much those treatments will cost, whether we have copays or are covered at all and which doctors are in-network. And that information resides with our insurance companies.

Right now, your employees can only access that information online or by calling to ask for it, neither of which is likely to be a satisfying experience. Insurers’ websites and call-centers are often outdated and ill-equipped to handle basic queries. If Apple could put that information in our pockets, it would revolutionize the way we consume, manage and pay for healthcare – much like it did for music.

Though I believe Apple is up to the task, getting it done will require far more than their formidable development chops. Insurers don’t like to share proprietary information with the world. Their pricing data is the fruit of hard-fought negotiations with healthcare providers. And they’re unlikely to welcome Silicon Valley into their patient databases.

On the positive side, there are only a few hundred health insurers, compared to thousands of physician groups and hospitals. And again, this is the same company that broke through the web of challenges on digital music.

The only way to truly revolutionize healthcare is to gain the trust and cooperation of health insurers. It’s just a question of whether Apple is up for it or not.