In yet another sign that Apple has its sights fixed solidly on the healthcare industry, the company has secured a strategic partnership with another national health insurer, Aetna. Apple, it turns out, is not just a company that knows how to build high-end consumer electronic devices. It also knows how to convince other companies to subsidize those devices for consumers, first with the iPhone and now with Apple Watch. This partnership will let Aetna members earn free Apple Watches as part of a rewards program that incentivizes healthy lifestyle choices.

Apple: A Healthcare Data Company

Rumors have swirled around Apple’s healthcare ambitions since initial rumors of the device were leaked in February 2013. Apple Watch launched in 2014 with an accelerometer, an optical blood flow sensor, and the ability to track caloric burn, exercise, and daily time spent standing. Since launch, Apple has added an FDA-cleared ECG, fall detection capabilities, and clinical alerts for abnormal heart rates and irregular rhythms. The pace of development within the Apple Watch team confirms that Apple sees it as a healthcare IoT device that it will continue aggressively enhancing to capture health data.

Running in parallel, Apple has advanced its ambition to move into healthcare on another important front: Apple Health. Apple’s flagship Health app leverages FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources) API calls to pull EHR (electronic health record) data out of enterprise health record systems and into the iPhone, where it joins Apple Watch data and many other sources of patient-generated health data to create a 360-degree view of the patient, owned by the patient — the democratization of patient health data.

Apple: A Member Engagement Company

As healthcare organizations (HCOs) race to blend disparate data sources into a true 360-degree view of the patient, Apple is standing by with all systems ready to deliver just that. But for Aetna, the data is just the beginning. The two companies have been in talks to bring Apple Watch to Aetna members since 2016, and the new announcement offers some insight into why the partnership took so long to come into fruition.

Apple and Aetna have created a functionally rich member engagement app that leverages this consumer health data to create a personalized consumer experience. The new app, called Attain, goes beyond rewarding healthy lifestyles. Attain facilitates prescription renewals through CVS, helps members choose low-cost care providers in their communities, and reminds members of overdue preventive services such as flu shots.

What It Means

Aetna currently has 22.1 million members who will be eligible to participate in the new program. Add to this the 38 million members eligible to earn a free Apple Watch through a similarly structured partnership that Apple struck with UnitedHealth in 2018, and it becomes clear that Apple is pursuing a healthcare business model focused on consolidating patient health data on behalf of consumers and leveraging it to establish partnerships with HCOs. This market pressure will create several downstream effects, and therefore HCOs should:

  • Add more muscle to their digital arsenal. There will be a growing lack of patience for digital immaturity as Apple helps insurers improve the digital touchpoints of UnitedHealthcare and Aetna. As this best-in-class consumer experience creeps into pockets of healthcare’s digital ecosystem, pressure will mount on all HCOs to increase their digital maturity.
  • Iterate toward member engagement success. Through trial and error, emerging insights will shed light on what digital strategies drive healthy decisions and what strategies fall flat.
  • Expect a healthy dose of industry cynicism. A subset of healthcare’s digital business leaders will view Apple’s consumer-facing clinical alerts as a potential burden on providers, creating unnecessary visits to address questions from patients who receive clinical alerts that do not warrant a visit. The industry will be watching these early programs to see how this concern plays out.


My name is Jeffrey Becker. I invite you to join me in the coming months as I follow Apple, Amazon, and Alphabet as they chart their course into the healthcare industry. Connect with me via briefings or inquiries to engage directly. Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn.