Apple IBMWe often hear about the challenges of an aging population. The talk is more usually associated with hand-wringing than genuine practical action, however, so it’s really good to hear about a new initiative which has the potential to make a real difference to healthcare for older people.

Teaming up with Japan Post

In April this year, IBM and Apple announced a new partnership with Japan Post, the largest provider of health and life insurance in Japan. Japan has perhaps the biggest proportion of older people in the world, so it’s well ahead of others in considering how to defuse the ‘demographic time-bomb’. But this initiative is still something quite new. It involves giving away iPads to millions of senior citizens.

Japan Post employees already visit senior citizens. They will spend time teaching people how to use these iPads, which will contain a suite of IBM-developed apps around health, family and community issues. From reminding people to take their medicine, through to helping them to stay in contact with their families, and even book a plumber, the apps are designed to make life easier. Data will be held in a secure cloud, with customers able to opt in or out of providing personal information.

An ongoing partnership

The Apple/IBM partnership is a wider initiative announced last summer. The last app launch, back in April, was health-focused, perhaps related to the Japan Post announcement, but the most recent  release, in July, was business all the way. There were two apps specifically for mortgage companies, Loan Advise for Mortgage Officers for iPad, and Loan Track for iPhones, but there were others to support business travellers in planning and tracking their travel, and apps for field service professionals and field technicians, as well as a site safety app. Two (Shift Sync and Travel Track) were available on the Apple Watch as well as iPad or iPhone.

Parts of the tech press have suggested that developers are holding back from developing Apple Watch apps until they see how sales develop. But perhaps the new IBM/Apple releases show that developers are waiting to see what works on the Watch instead. In general, we only give watches a quick glance, and that has lessons for app development for the Apple Watch. But there is potential for health apps there.

Beyond patients to professionals and providers

It’s not just the end-users, such as patients, who will benefit from the Apple/IBM partnership. In August last year, soon after the partnership announcement, Apple and IBM said that they would create a mobile-first platform. There’s no doubt that this creates plenty of opportunities for healthcare.

A year on, it’s still not clear precisely how this might work, or how the opportunity is being used by healthcare providers or app developers. IBM and Apple are piloting work on querying IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence system using Siri. Although it’s a difficult trick to pull off, it has potential to generate huge value for healthcare professionals and patients alike. It could, for example, make it much easier for physicians to access information about the most recent clinical trials, or best practice guidelines quickly and easily. Providers are already developing their own apps for problems that they want to solve.

There are still plenty of challenges, of course, not least the availability of data that can be queried. But the Apple/IBM partnership has big ambitions for healthcare and is starting to deliver on them.

Maintaining the pace of digital transformation

IBM and Apple have a long history of collaboration and partnership. Back in the 1980s, the two companies recognised that they could help each other. But last year’s partnership announcement was slightly different, because it was exclusive.

This makes life much easier for IBM’s developers, who can focus on one single platform. They can also apply IBM’s Big Data capabilities to new apps, which is likely to be particularly important in healthcare. Apple still dominates the mobile and tablet market, despite press reports; IBM has obviously calculated that the gain from exclusivity will compensate for the loss of Android business.

Apple gains an ability to target the PC market as a genuine player. The MobileFirst approach enables the replacement of PCs with mobile devices. Healthcare, with its mobile providers, and need for swift and intuitive access, is an obvious beneficiary. The IBM/Apple partnership is still young. But the Japan Post initiative shows the two companies are serious about moving into healthcare. There is potential for much more in future.

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