Every year the world awaits Apple’s newest releases, and this year the big reveal included one product of particular interest to the medical community. Apple Watch users will now have the capability — through a third-party app from AirStrip— to send HIPAA-compliant data directly to their physicians.Though much of the buzz about AirStrip focused on its extreme sensitivity, including its ability to distinguish between the heart rate of a pregnant woman and her fetus, for those in the know about medical privacy laws, the most exciting aspect of the announcement was the one that the crowd overlooked.
Prior to AirStrip, mobile technologies have been hamstrung in their ability to communicate patient information by medical privacy laws. If AirStrip and Apple have managed to find a way to work within the HIPAA restrictions, it will represent a game changer.
HIPAA is a law that was passed in 1996. The acronym stands for Healthcare Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, and its purpose was twofold. It was designed to eliminate the complex bureaucratic process required when patients wanted to move their medical information from one insurance company to another, as well as to protect the privacy of that information. It forced all those that come in contact with such personal information as test results, medical diagnoses, and even appointment schedules, to act with extreme care. Not only does transmission of patient information require careful controls, but medical facilities are also required to pursue rigorous data destruction processes. Medical facilities have turned to hard drive shredding as just one example of the rigors of HIPAA compliant data destruction.
Though the law was well intentioned, it was created before the Internet became ubiquitous, and as a result its requirements were not written with the new exchange of data in mind. It has been arduous, if not impossible, for the medical industry to incorporate some of technology’s newest innovations, even the ones that patients are carrying around with them. Though many have attempted to make smartphones and other electronic devices HIPAA compliant, they have found that the costs are prohibitive, reaching into the hundreds of thousands of dollars for only minimal usability. Developers have been hesitant about entering the fray, in part because the compliance laws can be opaque.
Of course, Apple has never been one to shy away from a challenge, and when they introduced HealthKit – a platform that allows personal health information to be shared between apps – it pushed app developers to tread where they hadn’t previously. The Apple Watch’s ability to send secure messages between physicians and patients, which provides authentication protocols, has addressed many of the HIPAA concerns, including the ability to be sure who is receiving or sending privileged information. AirStrip takes this one step further.
For patients who need constant monitoring of chronic illnesses, the ability to communicate medical metrics directly to their physicians represents an enormous boon. Though the wearable technology that has been available up to this point collects valuable information, wearers don’t generally have the ability to interpret them at the sophisticated level required for diagnosis and true medical monitoring of data. They were left with a pile of information that their physician couldn’t use unless they physically walked it into the office. The AirStrip enables immediate access to collected data, and the ability for a physician to provide feedback on a much more immediate level.
The fact that the technology is now available does not change the fact that it is not likely to be widely available to those who need it, as the Apple Watch remains out of reach for the average patient. Still, the development of HIPAA compliant mobile apps for an expensive item like the Apple Watch is likely to be a sign that similar platforms will be available in the not too distant future in a more affordable format.
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