In late January, almost out of nowhere, Apple announced a new feature for its Health app called Health Records; essentially a centralised place for people to view their medical records.
That begs a lot of questions. How does it work? When can we use it? Is this just another notch in Apple's longterm plans to dominate our health?
Read this: How to use Apple Health
With that in mind we decided to put together this explainer to answer all your questions about Apple Health's newest feature. Let's get to it.
How do health records work?
The world of health records can be, and frequently is, a confusing mess. There are a lot of acronyms, like EHR (electronic health records) and PHR (personal health records), around to confound you. At their most basic though, health records are a record of your personal health, from your immunisations to medication to various conditions.
Hospitals and doctors are required by federal law to give you your medical records if you request them, but that process is not easy. Sometimes, it can take days, which can be a big problem in emergency situations.
In 2010, CNN reported a story about a man was admitted to a hospital suffering from kidney cancer. The man's wife requested his medical records but didn't receive them immediately. The man was then transferred to another hospital without the records. Doctors at the second hospital didn't know how much medication to issue him, erring on the side of caution to avoid overdose.
It took five days for the first hospital to give the wife the medical records, which could have been used by the second hospital to administer proper treatment and not leave the man suffering in pain.
Steve Steinhubl, Director of Digital Medicine at STSI, told Wareable that there's even a financial disincentive for doctors and hospitals to not give you your medical records – it makes it more difficult for you to see a new doctor.
However, there are very few cases where a doctor can deny you your medical records, and they mostly only apply to information that may harm you or another person. However, if that happens you can always go above your doctor and ask your provider.
In recent years, new initiatives like EHRs have made it easier for health records to change hands between hospitals and doctors, but they're still not easy for patients to get a hold of. You still have to go ask your provider for your health records. There are also things like PHRs, which are completely maintained by patients. These are often online, but they don't include the latest information from your doctor – unless you add it yourself.
Yes, these new iniatives have made things easier, but they're still clunky protocols that don't solve the fundamental issue of how difficult it is to get and transfer medical records. It's like duct taping a hole in the wall.
What is Apple Health Records?
Health Records is Apple's way of solving the complexities of the way health records work. The new feature is tucked into the Health Data section of the Health app, which is Apple's hub for all your health information from all your health devices and services.
Health Records sucks in your, well, health records from all possible sources. So every hospital or provider that has your medical information will feed Health Records your data, compiling everything in one singular place.
Yep, it works just as the Health app does. Though instead of pulling in information from devices like Apple Watch or apps like Runtastic, it's drawing in medical records.
That medical record data includes your allergies, procedures, medications, lab results, immunisations, conditions and clinical vitals. You'll have all of that on the go, and ready to look at or show your doctor easily.
Health Records' creation was based on Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources – or FHIR, pronounced "fire". That's a standard used by the medical industry for transferring electronic medical records.
As for privacy, Health Records are encrypted on your device via your passcode. Your medical records are not stored on iCloud and not viewed by Apple, they're directly on your phone. This works in a similar manner to how your fingerprint – or facial data if you have an iPhone X – is stored on your iPhone's secure enclave.
How does it work?
Health Records is located in the Health Data section of the Health app, Apple's one-stop shop for your health information. Once you're in the Health Records screen, you'll see a couple of things.
In your immediate view, you'll find all your medical records broken up into segments. At the top there's "All Records" – this will take you to a screen that gives you a brief overview of your medical records.
Below that, you'll see your records broken up into type. You'll be able to go a little more in-depth on your specific records. So if you want to see just your immunisations, you can go there. If you want to see your allergies, you can go there.
Below your medical records, in a dull and easily ignorable gray, are all your sources. So if you want to go through all your medical records by source, whether it be hospital or clinic or what-have-you, you can do so.
The feature is currently in beta as a part of the iOS 11.3 beta. Only a handful of hospitals have signed up to test the feature out. If you're a member of these hospitals, and you sign up for the iOS 11.3 beta, you're in luck. Otherwise, you'll have to wait until iOS 11.3 is live and your hospital, insurance provider or clinic has signed up to participate.
Which hospitals have signed up?
So far, 12 hospitals, clinics and insurance providers have signed up to be a part of Health Records.
Those include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Cedars-Sinai, Penn Medicine, Geisinger Health System, UC San Diego Health, UNC Health Care, Rush University Medical Center, Dignity Health, Ochsner Health System, MedStar Health, OhioHealth and Cerner Healthe Clinic.
Similar to Apple Pay, the Cupertino company will continue to roll out additional insurers and medical facilities over the coming months and years.
When can we use it?
If you're a member of one of the hospitals or insurance providers above, you can sign up for the iOS 11.3 beta and jump on in. If you'd rather not put your daily driver through the unpredictability of a software beta, you can wait until iOS 11.3 goes live.
Apple says 11.3 will arrive sometime in spring 2018. Thus far, iOS 11.3 has only had two betas – Apple tends to go through four or five software betas before pushing a software update. It's likely iOS 11.3 will arrive in late April.
What does this mean for Apple's health ambitions?
It's still a little difficult to gauge where Apple's going with its health initiative, but we do know the company had looked into buying clinics in the past year. We also know that with initiatives like ResearchKit, CareKit and HealthKit it's been looking to make it easier for researchers, doctors and developers to use Apple products in the medical field.
Read this: What Apple is doing in digital health
There's also Apple's job listings. First spoted by The New York Times, we know that the company is working on "next-generation" health sensors for iPhone and iPad, an "exciting new project" for Apple's health team and "groundbreaking" health and fitness features.
Apple is a company that likes end-to-end control, and – should things spring its way – it's not hard to speculate that Apple imagines a world where users use its devices to get health data, which travels to the Health app, which then goes to doctors at its own clinics.