Can Apple Watch help improve the health not just of an isolated user, but of an entire country? Among the news that Tim Cook presented yesterday at Keynote, the announcement that “Singapore will be the first country to offer benefits to people who use Apple Watch to stay in shape” may seem like an (other) Asian eccentricity, but it opens a series of very interesting questions about the role of digital health in today’s world.
The agreement, the first of its kind reached by Apple with an entire country, will basically be aimed at strengthening the healthy habits of the participants and will put all the monitoring and gamification potential of the Apple Heath ecosystem into it. Singapore, for its part, will put 380 Singapore dollars (235 euros at the exchange rate) in total. It will work? It is not the first time that Singapore has launched something similar and, although unfortunately we do not yet have data on the rest of the programs, we know that it has the potential to work. It’s time to see if they have the technology to achieve it.
How does the program work?
Singaporeans who want to qualify for the two-year program will need to have an Apple Watch and an app, LumiHealth, which is not yet available on the App Store. Through the app, users who perform activities such as swimming, walking meditation, sleep better or participate in public health programs such as vaccination campaigns will be able to obtain certain financial incentives.
Myoung Cha, the manager who coordinates the program for Apple Health, explained on CNBC that the goal was to build something that citizens actually use. Therefore, the idea is that various doctors and fitness experts design tasks based on sociodemographic factors (age, generation or weight) in such a way that the challenges presented by the system are adapted to the reality of each user.
What is Singapore looking for?
The most obvious goal is to save money. Singapore offers universal health care to its 5.6 million citizens through a mixed system in which the government takes care of some health care expenses (in principle, the most important), while patients have to pay premiums, copays and insurance.
Singapore’s strategy, as they have explained, would be to test whether this type of program can help them reduce the health bill in the future and thus improve the stability of the country’s health system. In fact, this is not the first time that Singapore has launched such a program as a measure to save healthcare costs. Last year, in 2019, it struck a deal with Fitbit to do something similar. Unfortunately, the emergence of COVID a few months after the start of the agreement has prevented us from having reliable data on its effectiveness.
What is Apple looking for?
Apple has been immersed in a kind of ‘healthy twist’ whereby they have tried to include numerous health apps in their ecosystem. The results so far seem positive, although some of its functionality has received a lot of response from the medical profession. With this program, in addition to a kind of financial aid for those who buy the Apple Watch for these purposes and a loyalty program financed by the same state, Apple guarantees a huge amount of data that it can use in the future.
And also a precedent. It is true that in the US, Apple is already working with private insurers such as Aetna on similar programs, but had not yet achieved a country agreement. In many ways, the great white whale Apple Health and any player in digital health is to achieve direct integration with national health systems. The success of the program in Singapore can help you a lot in this regard.
But will it work?
It’s hard to say until we see the system in action. As far as we know, devices of this type can be successful in improving the health of citizens as long as they focus on health behaviors and are well personalized. In this sense, the Singapore experience can be a huge experiment to study to what extent health interventions like these can scale without difficulty. It may sound simple, but it is not at all.
It is, in fact, the great challenge of digitized medicine in the coming years. We know that it is already very difficult to offer the best medicine available without having an AI system helping, but the next step will be the crucial one: to what extent new electronic devices will allow to revolutionize healthcare. Fortunately, we will have the answer shortly.