Trusting Apple With Health Records. Can Apple Live Up To Privacy Values? As its iPhone sales growth slows, Apple has been expanding its presence in health care, where privacy matters. Apple's privacy values could give it an edge, if the company lives up to them.

Storing Health Records On Your Phone: Can Apple Live Up To Its Privacy Values?

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Apple is one of several big tech companies trying to get into the health care business, but Apple first has to convince consumers that its health apps are a safer choice when it comes to privacy. NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: 2018 wasn't a great year for Apple; iPhone sales slowed. There's chatter among analysts that its best days of innovation are behind it. Yet Apple has been innovating in ways that go beyond its new hardware as it expands its ambitions into health care. Sam Cavaliere of San Diego is starting to rely on Apple's health app.

SAM CAVALIERE: I'm in average health. I can always stand to lose a little weight.

SYDELL: Cavaliere works in tech and sees doctors at University of California San Diego Health. He travels a lot for work and likes to keep track of his blood pressure. The app helps him do that. He also decided to let the app access his medical records.

CAVALIERE: When I go to the doctor, in addition to my records from there, I get my blood pressure results that I've taken myself, and they can see that and compare it to what they are doing in the office so that they get a bigger picture than just the once or twice a year that I show up at the office.

SYDELL: Many of us use our smartphones to track exercise steps and nutrition, but having your health care records inside an app goes a step beyond. The app can record medications taken, visits to psychiatrists, treatments for diseases, stuff you might not want employers, insurers or advertisers to know. Apple first released its own health app in 2014. It's different from the third party health apps that can be downloaded on an iPhone, but it was a big step for Apple.

And last March, Apple started coordinating with health care providers like UC San Diego to transfer health records into its app. The advantage to consumers is keeping all their records in one place on one device. UC San Diego Health's chief information officer Dr. Chris Longhurst says Apple's privacy features made them feel more at ease.

CHRIS LONGHURST: This data did not go to the cloud. It only resided on the user's device. It is encrypted and is only accessible with user permission. Nothing is more important than keeping the privacy of our patients' health information.

SYDELL: Apple can't access the encrypted health records without permission from the user. The health records feature is now used by more than 200 providers around the country. It is subject to strict federal privacy laws, and it's part of how Apple has been trying to distinguish itself as committed to privacy. And that could pay off big in health care. CEO Tim Cook has become a vocal critic of rivals like Google and Facebook for selling ads off user data. In an interview with NPR, Cook says that's something Apple has avoided.


TIM COOK: People will look at this and feel that they can trust Apple, and that's a key part of anyone that you're working with on your health. The reality is that I know for me, I want to do business with people that have my health data, people that I deeply trust and that I have high levels of confidence in.

SYDELL: But at a time of heightened scrutiny over how tech companies protect user privacy, Apple, too, has made mistakes. The Wall Street Journal found several top health and fitness apps available on iPhones sent personal information such as heart rate data to Facebook. But those apps don't connect to medical records, and apps that do must undergo heightened scrutiny by Apple. Still, news like this could threaten to undo Apple's reputation for data privacy.

Cavaliere of San Diego says Apple has managed to gain his trust because he says the company doesn't treat him like a commodity.

CAVALIERE: Because I don't get fed advertisements for them, so I don't see them trying to monetize it, whereas other companies will do that now. But with what Apple has been doing, I feel comfortable with how they're doing it and what they're doing.

SYDELL: Of course for Apple to succeed, it needs to convince people that they are a safe choice to protect medical records and won't treat their customers as fodder for advertisers. Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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