How iOS 9 fixes HealthKit's woman problem

Apple forgot that reproductive health is hugely important to women when it released HealthKit. That's no longer the case.

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Apple's iOS HealthKit can monitor and record exercise by counting steps, and vital signs such as  pulse. 

Credit: Apple

One major highlight of iOS 8 was HealthKit, a framework designed to centralize the health information collected by the third-party apps you use. But there was a huge hole: The native Health app that acts as a database for all that information didn’t collect any data around women’s reproductive health, despite the fact that a slew of iOS apps are dedicated to helping women track periods, sexual activity, and other stats. Not surprisingly, women noticed this glaring oversight and said to Apple: “Really?”

Apple is fixing its mistake in iOS 9 with a Reproductive Health section in the native Health app. The app collects the following data points: basal body temperature, cervical mucus quality, menstruation, ovulation test result, sexual activity, and spotting. You can enter your own data here if you don’t use a period-tracking or sexual health app, and Health really drills down into specifics (we’re talking mucus clarity).

While HealthKit is just a framework and nothing prevents women from sharing their health data with a specific app, the whole point of HealthKit is to unite all of that data in one place. It’s like taking your patient charts from various doctors and specialists and compiling a master electronic medical record, right on your iPhone. Even if you never look at it (and who really looks at the iOS Health app?), it’s just nice to know it’s there if you need it.

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The new HealthKit Reproductive Health section in iOS 9 asks for data points that are incredibly relevant to women.

More than period-tracking

The Reproductive Health addition to HealthKit in iOS 9 isn’t just about period-tracking—it’s about how period-tracking and other reproductive data points offer insights into a woman’s overall health.

“For women to fully understand and have a complete picture of our health, physical fitness, sleep, and nutrition are key parts, but it’s incomplete,” said Jennifer Tye, vice president of partnerships for women’s health app maker Glow. “You aren’t also able to see and track information about your cycle. That’s a fundamental part of completing a picture of the health of a woman.”

ruby ios

Ruby by Glow is a new iOS app that makes it super simple for women to log their health data every day.

“The more that technology and apps enable this logging and sharing of menstrual data in a responsible way, and the bigger the ecosystem that exists, we think that’s a great thing," Tye added.

HealthKit’s API lets health and fitness apps read each other’s data if you allow them to, which can be incredibly useful. One common case is a food-logging app that knows how many miles you run by tapping into your running app’s data. Then it calculates how many calories you burn and consume throughout the day to give you an overview of how effective your diet and exercise routines are for weight maintenance. There are also unique examples like a new medical alert app that pushes you notifications when it reads out-of-range blood glucose data from HealthKit-integrated apps and iOS accessories. The app can also alert your emergency contacts with dangerously out-of-the-ordinary readings. With women’s health data now available in iOS 9, developers can do a whole lot more with the info you give them.

Putting HealthKit to work

Earlier this summer, Glow, which also created the fertility-tracking app Glow and pregnancy-tracking app Nurture, launched a new iOS app, Ruby, to help women track sex and health data. Glow was already integrated with HealthKit, but that app is focused on helping women conceive, and so the information it asks for and the data it generates are tied to pregnancy. Tye said the company realized half of its users were using the Glow to avoid pregnancy, and so Ruby was created to pick up the slack. Ruby users log information daily about sexual activity, mood, and period symptoms. With iOS 9's release this week, Ruby has been updated to marry its sexual health data with data from other apps to give its users a deeper understanding of their well-being (with their express permission, of course).

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Clue is working on an update for iOS 9 that will let women log way more information.

“Our goal is that soon enough [HealthKit] will help us to share really targeted insights in Ruby users’ daily lives,” Tye said. “If you know when your pain tolerance is highest in the point of your cycle, you can book a waxing appointment. Or wouldn’t it be great to have an alert before your next period to make sure you stocked up on ibuprofen? We think this can help women manage their lives.”

For women who are active and using fitness apps to log their accomplishments, or for women who are getting in shape and using those same apps to track their progress, the integration of that data with sexual health data could yield some interesting insights.

“Running is something many people do, and I know from my own experience that when you have your period, running feels quite different,” said Ida Tin, cofounder and CEO of period-tracking app Clue. “You might have pain, you might not feel as sporty as you usually do. But running relieves pain and gives you energy, so knowing your cycle makes exercise very interesting, and knowing how exercise affects your cycle is very powerful.”

Clue is working on its own major update timed for iOS 9’s rollout that will add more tracking categories. Apparently, Tin said, women want Clue to track more of their data so they can see trends and understand their overall health.

But HealthKit’s data-sharing isn’t just useful for women. Apple’s healthcare partners willl also be able to tap into that reproductive health information, if women choose to share it with them, just like they can see all other HealthKit information (again, if patients opt in). Having access to that data could lead to more attentive care, faster diagnoses, and other benefits for patients.

It took Apple way too long to recognize that reproductive health data is hugely important to women, which was strange, because the company is doubling down on initiatives like ResearchKit (which just went international) and positioning the Apple Watch as a health device. Health is clearly important to Apple, and with iOS 9, women can feel like they’re important to Apple, too.


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