Sumbul Desai

Reaching the masses

2 minute read

Dr. Sumbul Desai, vice president of health at Apple, is hoping to prove that personal-tech devices can be good for our mental health. Desai has been a key force behind new health tools on the iPhone and Apple Watch, teaming up with prominent medical researchers at universities around the country to conduct landmark health studies that inform the health features pushed out to tens of millions of users. “I think we’re just scratching the surface of how biometrics can tie to aspects of our health,” says Desai. 

Led by Desai, Apple partnered with UCLA in 2020 on a three-year mental-health study of more than 3,000 participants to glean insights into how we diagnose and treat depression and anxiety. “We’re assessing objective measures like sleep, physical activity, heart rate, daily routines, and use Apple Watch and iPhone to give us a sense of what the relationship is between these factors and symptoms of depression and anxiety,” says Desai. The goal is for UCLA to then use the data to help health care providers pick up warning signs and prevent the onset of depressive episodes, track the effectiveness of treatment, and potentially understand the underlying causes of depression. Early findings show that late bedtimes, staying home more, and spending more time sitting and less time exercising are all associated with higher rates of depression.

Another important finding: 80% of study participants reported that regularly reflecting on their mood increased emotional awareness, and about half said that it had a positive impact on their well-being. This insight inspired a new feature launched on Apple’s Watches and iPhones in 2023 called “State of Mind,” which prompts users to stop and reflect on what factors may be impacting their mood. “It’s a simple feature, but it empowers individuals to better understand their health so they can be proactive, not reactive, which is what so often happens in health care,” says Desai. Considering the company has sold more than 54 million of its smart watches alone worldwide, the effect of the feature could be significant. But Desai thinks small. “If I can look back on my career and say, ‘Hey, I empowered an individual to get the help they needed sooner,’” she says, “there’s nothing more special than that.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at