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The Health app that comes pre-installed on iPhones will now be able to show patient health records, Apple announced this week.

MARC-ANDRE JULIEN

Apple has quietly entered the Epic Systems-dominated marketplace of medical records software with a phone app that will let users easily access personal medical information.

The Silicon Valley tech giant announced on Wednesday that the Health app on iPhones can now link up to so-called “patient portals," online resources where people can find information on upcoming appointments, prescriptions, diagnoses, payment information and other personal medical data. Those online portals are built for clinics and hospitals by electronic health record vendors like Epic, the massive Verona-based health care software company.

Epic calls its patient portals “MyChart,” a brand that should be familiar to many patients in Madison: The portal is used by major systems like UW Health and SSM Health.

Apple’s new tool, still in a beta testing period, provides an alternative to MyChart. But according to at least one market analyst, long-established companies like Epic have little reason to feel nervous about the consumer tech giant’s entry into their business.

For one thing, while Apple’s tool provides a sleek new interface, it still relies on the actual portals built by Epic for pulling that information in the first place.

“(Health record companies) will still be building their core products,” said Brian Eastwood, an analyst with the health care technology consulting group Chilmark Research. “They’ll still be maintaining the records.”

Eastwood added that while rumors swirl about the possibility of Apple and Amazon attempting to construct actual medical records systems, for them to do so would be an arduous, complex and slow gamble.

“Right now, it’s still a little bit in the realm of fantasy,” he said.

Epic itself described the new Apple product as a “collaboration.” In a written statement, Janet Campbell, the company’s vice president for patient engagement, praised Apple for working “to make health data more accessible, portable and interoperable for patients.”

An Epic spokesperson also highlighted that 9 of the 12 health systems that will be participating in beta testing for the iPhone patient records tool are Epic customers.

Epic’s reaction to the news could support Eastwood’s guess that the health care tech industry is actually reacting positively to Apple’s entry to the market.

“If one of the big tech companies announces something even remotely related to health care, people get excited,” he said. “The hope is that a company like Apple, a company with a history of designing consumer apps, might give an incentive for people to look at the information in their portals.”

Few patients use existing patient portals, according to research from the U.S. Government Accountability office. In 2015, it found that only 15-30 percent of patients take advantage of the sites. The hope is that Apple’s tool, with its consumer-friendly design and its ability to feature records from across different hospitals and health systems, could change that.

Other major tech companies have struggled to succeed in patient records software. Microsoft’s HealthVault project, which offers patient health data on a web application, shut down some of its software earlier this year. Google Health, another personal health records service, died in 2011.

Eastwood said Apple’s challenge will be to better combine data from multiple portals into one unified record, and to do a better job at providing patients with context and explanations of their medical information, something he said has been lacking with patient records thus far.

“Some of the information that’s in portals isn’t very easy to understand,” he said. “You’ll get blood test results, and it’s a lot of numbers. And it’s great that you have those numbers, but if you don’t know what they mean, you don’t get value from that information.”

No Wisconsin health systems are participating in the beta testing phase of Apple’s health app.

Erik Lorenzsonn is the Capital Times' tech and culture reporter. He joined the team in 2016, after having served as an online editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and having written for publications like The Progressive Magazine and The Poughkeepsie Journal.