Apple open-sources CareKit to help us better understand our health

You can play with Apple's new health software, as well as the first apps.

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Apple open-sources CareKit to help us better understand our health
Forget the iPhone SE and the smaller iPad Pro: Apple's biggest surprise at its most recent keynote might have been CareKit, a software framework meant to help iOS users more easily monitor and manage their illnesses. Some of you might have felt your eyes glaze over at the sight of "software framework," so let's put it this way: Apple wants to make it easy to assess your own health data and share that data with the people who can help you get even better. And starting today, CareKit is available on GitHub for developers to start playing with.

In case you missed the news the first time, CareKit currently has four modules that developers can deploy in their apps. Care Card is a mobile care plan where people can check off recovery or treatment tasks. The Symptom and Measurement Tracker does what the name implies: You can specify the amount of pain you're in or perform specific activities meant to assess the progress of an illness. (Someone might tap the screen repeatedly to express how bad their Parkinson's feels that day, for example.) Your progress with Care Card items is reflected in another module, called the Insight Dashboard, which illustrates those treatment measures against your symptoms. Last, and arguably most important, a Connect module lets you share all of this information with loved ones and medical professionals.

There are a few important things to take note of here. First, I'm hearing that it's not terribly difficult to bake CareKit modules into an existing iOS app; it's apparently a couple days of work at most. And if used properly, CareKit-enabled apps could help people get a more comprehensive understanding of their own health. It's hard to overstate how helpful that could be. How you're feeling can be plotted over time against what meds you were on or how active you were. These more nuanced portraits of health should hopefully lead to more informed people and more informed treatments.

More importantly, the information that flows in and out of CareKit plays nice with existing electronic health record systems like Epic, so hospitals and research facilities shouldn't have too much trouble keeping up with the data that patients are sharing. Since that flow of information can ebb and flow far more frequently than scheduled checkups, the end result is that caretakers and physicians will hopefully have a better sense of a person's overall health. It's almost Apple's attempt to end a legacy of short, uninformative doctor's appointments and post-op check-ins.

This whole thing isn't without its potential problems. In light of the FBI's successful cracking of an iPhone, some will worry about the security of their health data. (For what it's worth, Apple says all health information is encrypted and unreadable to the company.) Generational differences could mean some of the older patients who could most benefit from a clearer dialogue about health might not be willing to use smartphones. Still, CareKit is a first step in the right direction.

Speaking of first steps, Apple gave a few developers early access to the framework, as it frequently does ahead of a wider release. Glow, a startup focused on female health, updated its fertility and maternal health apps, as did Start, an app that tracks whether antidepressants are working on people as they should be. Meanwhile, One Drop, a diabetes management application that lets people track their activity, food and medicine intake, also got a CareKit update. All four will be available today, but -- with any luck -- they're merely a harbinger of what's to come.

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