The FDA's associate director for digital health, Bakul Patel, noted that while the agency will be more lenient on devices aimed at simply improving the lifestyle of its customers, more health-invasive features, like a glucose monitor app on the Apple Watch, will continue to be reviewed by the FDA.
"We are taking a very light touch, an almost hands-off approach," Patel, the FDA's associate director for digital health, said in an interview. "If you have technology that's going to motivate a person to stay healthy, that's not something we want to be engaged in."The rule of thumb released in a few guidelines by the agency highlight that the FDA's focus will be on devices and software that are attempting to replicate, or mimic, the functionality of a medical service or device. Basic heart-rate and step-counting aspects of these wrist-worn devices will receive little-to-no regulation from the FDA.
Marketing will also be a factor for the agency, according to Patel. If a company is attempting to promote a product as being able to assist doctors in making medical decisions, "it will require more oversight." This is a concern not aimed currently at Apple's own Apple Watch and HealthKit, due to both's minimally invasive health-related functionality, but could become a concern in the future as Tim Cook himself echoed hopes of both platforms helping to pinpoint diseases and cancers in the near future.
"We have to be confident in what we are getting," Patel said. "The trajectory is there and all signals are headed that way, but by the same token the research and science should get us that confidence. It boils down to will it work or not."With a focus "only on the higher end of technology", Patel notes that the agency asks itself what kind of harm a user may face if the product fails, and uses that answer as a springboard into regulation of the product as a whole. The new laid-back angle is in stark opposition of how the tech world views the FDA, with most startups listing regulation by the agency as one of the biggest risks to a business "even when scrutiny is unlikely." Patel, and the FDA, knows of the issue and plans to hire new staff in assisting to "improve relations with technology companies" in the future.
"The FDA has a role to play for providing patients and consumers a level of confidence that they can use it," he said.
Although the FDA's new lax approach to basic fitness-tracking will give companies more room to operate on their own terms, as technology for the smart wearables category moves forward, we'll no doubt see more and more glucose- and blood pressure-tracking applications in the future. Apple itself has met with the FDA several times in the past few years, with most recent discussions centering around the functions and regulations of the Apple Watch.