Apple’s HealthKit: overview and app development considerations

Published on Jul 21, 2014 in iOS Developers Resources

On June, Apple announced HealthKit and its app Health at the WorldWide Developers Conference (WWDC). HealthKit will turn your iPhone into a big health platform, designed to help you keep better track of your personal health and fitness data. The aim is to allow all your health and fitness apps to share data, centralizing everything.

Until now, Apple has avoided making its own fitness software; instead, it has for years provided the iOS mobile platform that has allowed companies like Fitbit, Jawbone, Nike, RunKeeper, and MapMyFitness to showcase their apps. HealthKit will combine these programs so developers can build apps. For now, Nike and Mayo Clinic are among the first companies to join Apple. After that, it is expected that around twenty European and American hospitals partner the project too, allowing healthcare providers to receive and transmit data. HealthKit will let apps that provide health and fitness services to share their data with the Health app and with each other, as they will let send and receive information from hospitals or doctors for your next check-up.

On the dashboard, HealthKit will present you basic information on a daily basis, such as calories burned, sleep and heart rate. On the next screen, you will have access to features like “Diagnostics”, “Lab results”, “Medications” or “Vitals”. You can also create an emergency card with important health information, like your blood type and allergies, available right from your lock screen in case of emergency.


The rising of health and fitness gadgets and apps

Health and fitness gadgets and apps are becoming very popular lately; the goal of these accessories is to help users to be healthier by monitoring their sleep, cardiac rhythm or keeping track of their training so they can improve their sport aims and athletic performance.

In the current market, we can already find gadgets like Sony SmartBand, which tracks your training and allows you to access the results from your Android device. Other apps, like MapMyRide, let you track the distance you run and create routes, control the calories you burn and offer audio alerts. Others, like Instant Heart Rate, read your pulse by simply placing your finger on the phone’s camera. We can also find apps to control and improve your sleep, such as SleepBot, which tracks your sleep and offers you the results in the morning, including how many times you moved and woke up. And if you need a diagnostic, you can check your symptoms with the WebMD app.

Fitbit Flex is probably the most known of fitness gadgets: it’s a plastic bracelet which measures your activity during the day and your sleep at night. It’s very comfortable to wear, waterproof and it has a vibration alarm to wake you up softly. It monitors how much time did you sleep and wake up and it analyzes the quality of your sleep.

What makes the difference?

At this time, there are already more than 40,000 health apps in the stores. But, what would make Apple’s HealthKit different from the rest of health and fitness apps and gadgets? What HealthKit proposes is to make collected health information readily available and accessible to healthcare providers right from your device; current health and fitness apps are great collecting all the data (calories burned, cholesterol, heart rate…) but Apple’s Health app will put all that data in one place, accessible with a simple tap.


In fact, one of the worst problems that current healthcare faces is the inability to easily transfer patient records from one care location to another, and this is in the field where HealthKit could be really revolutionary: Apple could change the way medical records go from institution to institution, which now takes lots of time and trouble (call the other institution for the requested records, send a fax, wait for the scanned results…). With HealthKit, the patient would just have to unlock his phone and he’d have access to all his medical history, X-rays, vaccination records and results. Apple proposes to keep all this information in the cloud, with instant access from your phone, just a click away. Your health information will be stored in a centralized and secure location and you will be able to decide which data is shared with the app.

In this sense, HealthKit can be a real big step towards Electronic Medical Record or EMR (systematic collection of electronic health information in digital format that is theoretically capable of being shared across different health care settings).

Dealing with privacy and sharing matters

In the USA, once personal health information is shared with an entity is subject to the Health Information Portability and Accountabilty Act (HIPAA) requirements. Developers will have to keep these regulatory issues in mind when they build the apps; any developer who wants to use the HealthKit API to track, store, share or manage personally identifiable health information has to be aware of what is required of them.

Developers will have to pay special attention to areas like iOS notifications (which can appear on lock screens and thus be public without the user’s consent) and application data sharing: developers must ensure they are creating a HIPAA compliant app and that they are not sharing PHI (Protected Health Information) data. The idea is to create a kind of Dropbox for health-related information, and migrate some of a user’s health data to Apple’s Cloud, but always under the control of the user.

A P2P solution could help guarantee more privacy, keeping this data private without storing it on Apple’s Cloud. Because, what could happen if the phone falls into the wrong hands and anyone can access your health history, allergies, etc? It could even be dangerous at some point. Apple and developer’s hardest task is to make sure that users can really select which parts of their health information want to share and make them feel confident enough with the app; it might not be so easy to convince them in such a thorny subject as health and personal info is. Some people will be reluctant to have all this data in their phone, for the fear that anyone could have access to it (imagine a pregnant woman who still hasn’t told her husband she’s expecting, or a father who hasn’t informed his family that he has cancer). So now the question is: will users ever trust enough these kinds of apps? Do we really want all our medical information to be on the cloud?

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