Apple believes health will be the company’s greatest contribution to mankind. Leading this vision is Indian-American Sumbul Desai, who as the Vice-President of Health at Apple, is overseeing the company’s health initiatives, including clinical product development, innovative clinical partnerships and medical research. Businessline spoke with Desai during her visit to Mumbai to understand how Apple is positioning itself as a major player in the health space. Excerpts:


What is your assessment of where we are in the journey of health tech? Is it still at the beginning of the transformational journey, similar to how smartphones changed the way we communicate?

I really do think we are at the beginning, because ultimately health tech is a very large people change management problem. You have to change the behavior of physicians and then you have to change the patients’ and customers’ behaviour. Behavior change is one of the hardest things to do. And even when we look at our work at Apple we’re really focussed on ‘you’ as the individual, and the customer as the individual, and how we empower an individual to be holistic about their health, how we provide actionable insights based on their own data that are grounded in scientific evidence and, obviously, privacy always being at the centre of everything we do.


Tim Cook has said that Apple’s biggest contribution will be in the health space. Could you give us an insight into what’s coming.

We are laser-focussed on making sure that we continue to build on the work that we have done, and really focus on bringing more awareness and empowerment to each individual so that they truly are going to have the driver’s seat of their own health. We are investing in research and we collaborate with the medical community, which will take all of these new technology signals and really help us understand your health sooner and earlier. If we can touch people’s lives in a way, where we can prevent them from developing diseases, or actually be healthier and feel like they’re empowered and educated to drive their own health care. There’s nothing more impactful than that.


How do you convince people about privacy when it comes to their health data, given that we have had so many instances of data breaches and misuse of user data. 

We live and breathe privacy. And for us, it’s not just a line. For us being first to market isn’t as important as it is to ensuring privacy features even if that means taking more time to develop the feature. So, all of your data is local on the device, we don’t get any data in the cloud. And if you do choose to sync with iCloud, for example, it’s encrypted end-to-end. The only thing we can do is continue to focus on privacy — it’s a core of how we develop our products, and we actually don’t know any other way. You should expect the same level of privacy from your technology as you would expect from your doctor. That’s the standard we hold ourselves to. For example,  the heart rhythm notification feature that we introduced, took us an extra year to release because not only did we want to make sure we validated it from a scientific standpoint, but also ensure the privacy of users.  As we do more, and teach people how we do development, hopefully, we will raise the bar and privacy for everybody. 


Apple serves the higher end of consumers. The person who buys an Apple Watch probably gets quality health care already. How do you plan to translate your vision of democratising the availability of health tools for the larger population? 

We are not looking to replace healthcare, so I really don’t know if just because you have a watch you’re getting better healthcare. Because the healthcare system still ultimately delivers healthcare.  We’re not delivering healthcare. But with that said, you know we have spent a lot of time trying to diversify our line-up of devices, where we offer the SE devices that are more accessible, and that’s something that we pay a lot of attention to. The other thing is that we look at ways in various markets to be able to provide ways that make the devices more affordable.

And the other thing that we’re doing is we run a program for researchers who want to really learn on how to use this health tech in a way that democratises it. This requires studying and we donate watches to these researchers.  We’re really committed to making sure that people are learning how this technology can make a difference. We are still in the early days and so the hope is that over time we learn more, and make more features available, we also make the technology more available for more people. We are really investing in giving back to the ecosystem. 


 How do you rate the quality of research in India, and are you looking to partner with Indian researchers? 

I think some of the best researchers are here in India. There’s no doubt India has a world-class research community, and we absolutely always look for opportunities. Apple is very excited about India. We are excited to spend time with incredibly smart people Obviously, India is a special place for me as it’s my second home. So, we’re incredibly excited, and we’re looking for really amazing opportunities to do great things in health, and we think India would be a great place to look at things as well.


 What would you say is your number one challenge in the current context to make sure that you achieve what you want to do?

There are so many things to do, but we want to make sure that we are focussed on areas that can provide evidence-based, scientifically-based actionable insights.  Because when we develop our features, we pay a lot of attention to the science that goes behind them. Yet, there are so many opportunities to do so many things that you have to make those tough decisions to say, we’re going to work on this, we’re not going to work on that. 

The space is just evolving so fast that we are really excited to learn. Our teams are so excited about the work that often we have to say no we’re going to work on this now and then we’re going to work on that later. So I would say that’s probably one of our biggest challenges, but we view it as an opportunity as well, because that means that there’s a lot more work to do. 


Will you bring sensors on your watch that can indicate blood sugar levels, especially in markets like India, the diabetic capital of the world? 

 All of these areas are really important areas but they require a lot of science behind them. 


What are your thoughts on patents in the context whats happened in the US, where the administration has upheld a ruling against Apple. Do you think such actions can disrupt innovation? 

I came from an industry where academics really wanted to innovate.  And in order for innovation to happen, you need to enable the small players to innovate, which is why we take so much time to work with our developers. But you also need big players to innovate. The rules apply across the board equally and so I just think it’s really important to enable that innovation regardless of size.