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How Apple became a major player in health research

Jeff Williams, Kevin Lynch, and Sumbul Desai executives talk about the Apple Watch's role in health, from humble beginnings as a step tracker to the important parts Apple may play in the future health research.

From November 2017 until July 2018, Apple Watch owners were given the opportunity to take part in a voluntary heart study that Apple was conducting.

The study was the largest arrhythmia study of all time, with nearly 420,000 participants. Not only would the study provide useful information health researchers, it would help solidify the Apple Watch as a serious health tool.

Jeff Williams, Kevin Lynch, and Sumbul Desai — Apple's Chief Operating Officer, Vice President of Technology, and Vice President of Health respectively — met with The Independent to talk about the Apple Watch's role in consumer health.

As it turns out, the original goal of the Apple Watch wasn't to put heart health at the front and center, and they certainly weren't expecting to save any lives. The original Apple Watch's heart rate monitor was designed solely to provide more accurate step tracking than other competitors on the market. However, this changed when Watch owners began writing to Apple.

"The first letter that we got about it saving somebody's life with just the heart rate monitor, we were surprised, because anybody can go watch the clock and get their heart rate. But then we started getting more and more and we realized we had a huge chance and maybe even an obligation to do more," explains Williams.

As it turns out, one of the reasons the Apple Watch is a successful tool for heart health is because of all its non-health features. Apple has designed a wearable that functions not only as a heart monitor, but also a cellphone, a wrist watch, a tool for reading emails and texts, and so much more. These features made the Apple Watch a best seller, not the heart monitoring.

"If you tried to sell a heart rate monitor to alert you to problems, you know, 12 people would buy it," Williams continues. "So, the people who are wearing it, we get the chance to in some ways ambush them with information about their health, which is what's allowed us to have such a big impact."

They go on to say that the medical community is excited that Apple has managed to pull off this sort of success. Watch wearers are able to take a more proactive role in their health. The Apple Watch, after all, has been credited with saving lives.

The research community is excited as well. As it turns out, Watch Wearers are excited to take part in research. One of the biggest difficulties in health research is getting a substantial amount of data from participants. The Apple Watch gives users who may not be able to participate in traditional studies the ability to contribute their data in a meaningful way.

"It really dates back to when we launched ResearchKit, very early on. It's basically some frameworks that allow people to build apps that can conduct studies with everybody who has a phone or watch. It took so much friction out of the research process that it was well-accepted early on." says Williams.

And, as it turns out, the current hardware is capable of doing quite a bit more.

"There's already so much that we can work on. It's really a matter of choosing our focus areas and asking really great questions that then lead to insightful answers. That's the journey we're on. The latest studies around hearing health, for example, women's health," says Kevin Lynch. Apple has recently brought Cycle— a menstrual tracking function of Apple Health — to Apple Health and Apple Watch. "There's so much to learn. There are so many areas that we could focus on. And so that's strategically the most important thing for us: asking where can we make a meaningful contribution?"

Williams ends the interview by discussing the importance of Apple as a player in health.

"Every day I come into Apple, I love the impact we've had on people with our products. But when I got the first couple letters saying, this saved my life', it's just a whole different feeling. That's my octane for the day," he says. "And when we've got hundreds of millions of phones in people's pockets and tens of millions of devices on people's wrists, plus trust from customers, well, this is an opportunity we can't squander."