is in discussions with the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide portable electronic health records to military veterans, a partnership that would simplify patients’ hospital visits and allow the technology giant to tap millions of new customers, according to people familiar with the effort and emails reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Under the plans being discussed, Apple would create special software tools allowing the VA’s estimated nine million veterans currently enrolled in the system to transfer their health records to iPhones and provide engineering support to the agency. Apple in January announced its foray into the electronic-records field with a feature that allows patients to import and store medical information.
Top VA officials, as well as associates from President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club, discussed the project last year in a series of emails reviewed by the Journal. The emails show how the Trump administration wrestled early on with the project’s goals.
An Apple spokeswoman said the company has nothing to announce.
The partnership would be a major boost for Apple at a time when technology companies are looking to elbow into the $3.2 trillion health-care market. Alphabet Inc. recently hired prominent hospital-system executive David Feinberg to oversee its health initiatives, and
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to form a company that reduces its workers’ health costs.
Tech companies for years have sought, without much success, to bring together disparate troves of medical information and remove technological barriers to giving patients, providers and researchers access to health records. That access, health specialists have said, could improve care and speed the development of cost-effective treatments, but the effort faces technological hurdles and privacy concerns.
The VA partnership has the potential to accelerate Apple’s efforts to overcome past challenges by allowing it to tap into one of the nation’s largest, concentrated patient populations, health-care experts said. To date, the company has had to take a more patchwork approach, signing agreements with hospital networks and relying on them to encourage patients to import their medical records to iPhones using the new “Health Records” feature.
The company’s ultimate goal is to enable patients to import their records and share them with health-related apps, which would use the data to provide services like automated prescription refills, according to people familiar with Apple’s plans. Apple would take a 15% to 30% cut of those subscriptions as it does with most apps offered through its App Store.
“With nine million users, they will have the largest mobile platform for storing records on personal phones,” said Iltifat Husain, assistant professor at Wake Forest School of Medicine and co-founder of Impathiq, a health-data analytics company.
Apple first approached the VA in early 2017, according to a person familiar with the effort. Company and VA officials were excited about the project’s promise because it would allow true interoperability and portability of health data between doctors and software platforms, the person said.
Apple and the VA were developing the technology among a relatively small group of experts and officials which required non-disclosure agreements, according to an email reviewed by the Journal from Darin Selnick, a senior adviser to the VA secretary at the time.
Some of the early discussion involved Dr. Bruce Moskowitz, a doctor affiliated with Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago golf club, who wasn’t a government employee and has no official role at the VA. The Trump administration has faced scrutiny from lawmakers and veterans advocates for involving non-governmental acquaintances of the president in roles setting policy for the VA.
“I think the number one priority with Apple will be to have what they are already working on, portable health records available to veterans,” said Dr. Moskowitz in an email to top VA officials in May 2017.
Dr. Moskowitz laid out a series of goals for the technology early in the process, including the ability for veterans to find a variety of health-care facilities near them by using geotagging features and to quickly share test results and track prescriptions.
He also envisioned a system that would allow active-duty troops to take advantage of the technology, another potentially-massive patient base. He presented to Apple a type of emergency application his family developed to locate medical facilities.
Mr. Selnick, the VA official, challenged Dr. Moskowitz’s priorities in emails, saying that Apple officials were most interested in focusing on doctor certifications, patient control of data and development of a suicide-prevention app.
Apple and the VA have continued to develop the technology, according to people familiar with the effort.
Dr. Moskowitz declined to comment. Mr. Selnick said officials have had the best interest of the VA in mind. “No one was going to tell the VA what to do,” he said. Mr. Selnick declined to comment about the ongoing talks with Apple.
Apple’s push into health fits into its emerging strategy of growing revenue through a combination of feature-rich, higher-priced devices and software and services sales. In addition to its health-records software, Apple this year added heart-monitoring and fall-detection capabilities to its smartwatch and increased the starting price of its newest models by $70 from a year earlier.
Corrections & Amplifications
An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Iltifat Husain’s name.