Apple launches Research app to gather customers' healthcare data

15 November 2019, 10:49 | Updated: 15 November 2019, 13:32

Apple is making a bid for its customers' healthcare data by launching a new "Research app" which will collect information from iPhone and Apple Watch users and share it with academic studies.

The app is being pitched to Apple's estimated billion customers as a way to "contribute to groundbreaking research studies".

It is an opt-in programme which will share the data captured by Apple's existing monitoring of users' menstrual cycles, electrocardiogram sensoring, as well as a decibel measure to analyse the noise of the environment.

This data could be used in academic studies to improve the design of healthcare provision, which could then allow Apple to develop related apps.

Apple's ECG app was cleared by regulators for use across the UK and Europe earlier this year, although GPs warned that patients alerted by their phone to possible heart abnormalities could increase pressure on already strained services.

The company's chief executive Tim Cook has claimed that Apple's "greatest contribution to mankind" would be through the health benefits that its software and fitness tracking devices could provide.

While annual sales of iPhones are declining for the Cupertino-based company, this is being offset by growing sales of Apple Watches, as well as other accessories and services.

Healthcare data isn't a new market. Technology giant IBM has spent more than $4bn (£3.1bn) to acquire companies for the data they hold on "patient lives" - lifetime medical data - during the past decade.

However, wearable and fitness tracking devices with healthcare apps including Apple Watch and Fitbit - which is set to be acquired by Google for around $2.1bn (£1.6bn) - are a growth market.

At the time the Fitbit acquisition was announced, the company moved to reassure customers who were concerned about data confidentiality.

"The company never sells personal information, and Fitbit health and wellness data will not be used for Google ads," a spokesperson for the firm said.

However, it was unclear if this was a reference to "Google Ads" - the online marketing service, or a promise that the data wouldn't be monetised in any form of advertising or market research.

Google is currently being investigated by the US government for a potential breach of privacy law regarding healthcare data it handled within a cloud computing project. The company says its activities were inline with the law.