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With Elder-Support Service, Apple Moves Deeper Into The Health Care Space

A partnership between Apple, IBM, and Japan Post brings iPads loaded with “quality of life” apps to elderly customers in Japan.

With Elder-Support Service, Apple Moves Deeper Into The Health Care Space
[Photo: Flickr user University of the Fraser Valley]

In partnership with a company called Japan Post, IBM and Apple plan to bring an iPad-based service to 4 or 5 million elderly people in the Asian nation by 2020.

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Japan Post is a government-owned holding company that runs a postal service, and it already offered a “watch over” service through which, for a fee, postal employees checked up on elderly people and reported back to their families about their well-being. If all goes as planned, by next year, that same Japan Post worker will show up at elderly people’s homes with an iPad loaded with “quality of life” apps that help do things like scheduling medical appointments, hiring home maintenance professionals, volunteering, and coordinating travel. When the postal service employees check in, they’ll also help their customers with any questions about using this suite of apps.

It’s pretty smart for a company with daily access to people’s homes, like the postal service, to expand into elder care. It’s also a pretty great way for Apple to sell 4 million or 5 million iPads to Japan Post, which will provide the iPads to customers for free and charge a subscription fee for the service.


In addition to being a postal service, Japan Post—by its own report, Japan’s largest employer–is also a bank. It is also an insurance company—the largest life insurer in Japan, according to Japan Post CEO Taizo Nishimuro.

Insurance companies in the U.S. and elsewhere have, like companies in most industries, been working hard to incorporate more data from more sources into their businesses. Progressive Insurance, for instance, has a program through which users can install a device in their car to collect data on their driving. Good drivers get better rates. Life insurer John Hancock offers discounts based on Fitbit data. According to the New York Times, the company powering the John Hancock program, a South African business called Vitality, also works with other employers and health insurers in the United States.

Japan Post’s service, which is designed to be a central coordination point for seniors’ lives, could paint a much fuller picture of how lifestyle and health intersect for the insurer.

All data collected through the iPad apps will be anonymized, except in instances when customers choose to opt in so that they can, for instance, share their schedules with the Japan Post employee who works with them. But even with anonymized data, the big data possibilities are promising. “Sometimes if it’s anonymized, you’ll be able to do broad studies around what is effective and what isn’t,” says IBM CEO Ginni Rometty.

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This elder-care project is another step forward in the health space for both Apple and IBM.

Last year Apple introduced HealthKit, a set of tools for apps that track health and fitness data, partnering with the Mayo Clinic and electronic health record company Epic in order to hook data from its Health app into health care systems. Earlier this year, Apple launched ResearchKit, which allows researchers to build apps through which iPhone users can opt to contribute their data to health and medical studies.

Meanwhile, IBM has been putting its Watson supercomputer to work, analyzing health data to be used for everything from personalizing care after knee surgery to automatically adjusting insulin doses for diabetes patients. “We’re going to enable personalized health care on a huge scale,” John E. Kelly, a senior vice president who oversees IBM’s research labs and new initiatives, recently told the Wall Street Journal.

That personalization extends to the new elder-care project, which has the potential to give customers who opt in personalized tips that could help prevent health problems down the road.

“One of the capabilities that Japan Post is so excited about is when we start to analyze that data, we can help [customers] make better decisions,” Bridget
van Kralingen, IBM’s senior vice president of global business services, told Fast Company. “Some of those combinations of data I think will be quite helpful and interesting.”

Of course, the idea of an insurance company having access to personal data—anonymized or not—makes some people queasy. Among their concerns: data breaches and insurers using data to deny people coverage. “This is essentially a medical surveillance system,” Jamie Court of Consumer Watchdog told NPR when John Hancock launched its Fitbit-tracker discount.

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So here we are again, facing a trade-off between privacy and convenience. Many people happily make that trade. Jiff, a company that designs employee wellness programs, told NPR that 60% to 85% of employees are willing to give up information about their health in exchange for discounts and benefits. More than 80% of the 950,000 people who have paid genotyping company 23andMe to analyze their spit opted in to participate in its research. And Apple says it enrolled 60,000 people to lend their data to ResearchKit before it had even made it available to researchers and developers.

At a press event to announce the Japan Post program on Thursday, executives from all three companies emphasized that the elder service program has global potential. In the U.S., Van Kralingen told Fast Company, health insurance companies (rather than, say, UPS) would be likely partners, as well as health care providers and organizations like veterans’ associations. “It will really depends on the company,” IBM’s Rometty said about issues of sensitive data and trust. “Even in the United States, there are plenty of companies that are trusted by their clients.”

There’s not yet a plan (at least not a public one) to roll out anything like the Japan Post partnership in the U.S. (“At the moment we are focused in how to get this to work,” says Van Kralingen), which means you have plenty of time to think about whether or not you want to opt in to programs like it in the future.

About the author

Sarah Kessler is a senior writer at Fast Company, where she writes about the on-demand/gig/sharing "economies" and the future of work.

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