Tech giant Apple, health insurer Anthem, and software company CareEvolution are collaborating on a study conducted by the University of California, Irvine to investigate how digital tools, such as Apple Watch, can help patients control their asthma. The collaboration indicates Apple is strengthening its position in the evolving healthtech space.

Participants in the Digital Asthma study will receive an Apple Watch and a Beddit sleep monitor, with an intervention group accessing an app designed to help with asthma management. The primary outcome will show how app users’ asthma control and hospital utilization differ from the control group, while a secondary goal is to use data to potentially develop a digital biomarker for asthma control.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 60% of adults with the condition had uncontrolled asthma. This leads to increased risk of emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and loss of work and school days, with the economic cost in the US over $80bn between 2008-2013 (CDC).

Digital biomarkers will play a role in the healthcare revolution

Digital biomarkers are consumer-generated physiological and behavioural measures collected through connected digital devices. Creation and adoption of digital biomarkers has the potential to revolutionise healthcare – moving away from traditional reactive medicine to a proactive approach, personalizing medicine, empowering patients, and improving the overall health of the population.

The benefits of digital biomarkers are being recognized and explored, though they are yet to be systematically applied in disease prevention and management. Use of related

technology has steadily grown, with the wearable technology market worth $27.1bn in 2019, projected to reach $54.4bn by 2023, according to GlobalData.

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By GlobalData

Collaboration further strengthens Apple healthtech position

This is not Apple’s first entry in the digital biomarker space, with a 2020 collaboration with Johnson & Johnson on the Heartline study using an iPhone app and Apple Watch to assess the risk of arrythmia and to reduce stroke.

This is all part of Apple’s foray into healthtech with several acquisitions in recent years. Apple acquired Tueo health, a start-up developing software to help parents monitor asthma in sleeping children, in 2019; Gliimpse in 2016 for $200m, to collect and combine disparate personal medical records in one place; and Beddit, a company that makes sleep tracking devices, in 2017. Apple may acquire other digital biomarker and healthtech start-ups to solidify its market position.

Smartwatch use for future disease management

Smartwatches have moved away from purely fitness tracking, undergoing a surge in disease-specific functionality, such as Apple Watch’s ECG capability, Samsung Watch Active’s blood-pressure monitoring feature, Empatica’s watch for epilepsy, OMRON’s HeartGuide for blood pressure monitoring, and Great Lakes’ Neurotechnologies KinesiaU for Parkinson’s disease.

Moving forward, GlobalData predicts that smartwatches will be categorized based on functionality rather than device type. Wrist-worn devices will be developed to target specific diseases, their symptoms, and treatment compliance, creating a variety of digital biomarkers that can be used to enhance patient care.

Tech giants flex muscles in healthcare

There has been a recent trend of other tech giants moving into the lucrative healthcare market. For example, the 2019 $2.1bn acquisition of Fitbit by Google and the recent announcement that Amazon is set to disrupt the online pharmacy market. There have also been rumours that Amazon and Fitbit are going to move into telemedicine, an area that has seen unprecedented growth during the Covid-19 pandemic.