The new recently introduced Apple Watch Series 4 comes with two electrocardiograms, or ECG, apps that are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and supported by the American Heart Association (AHA). They are designed to catch irregular heart rhythms that may not necessarily show up during a medical exam, but that can signal serious heart risks. What’s more, the watch can also automatically detect a spill and summon help if you’re immobilized or unresponsive.
These new features further cement what appears to be a major push by Apple into health care. Apple will tell you that it didn’t have strict business ambitions in the health field, but that many of its initiatives in this area have happened organically.
A chief purpose for the heart rate monitor inside earlier Apple Watch devices was to help calculate calorie burn. But then customers who noticed that their heart rates appeared too high or too low began writing the company. Last year, Apple made a small but profound change whereby the watch, in effect, started passively looking after you.
“The Apple Watch has become an intelligent guardian for your health,” Apple chief operating officer Jeff Williams said at a news conference at the company’s headquarters in Cupertino, California.
Watch the video introduction of the Apple Watch Series 4:
The clearance from the FDA that Apple announced relates to two features: First is that the watch can passively monitor your heart for irregular rhythms and deliver alerts if and when it detects them — this feature is available on all Apple Watch models dating back to the original.
The second, for the Series 4 watch only, is the ECG feature — which the wearer of the watch must manually activate. The watch has a titanium electrode that works with the electrodes in the back crystal. The experience is supposed to take about 30 seconds, with the ECG classifying the results as either a normal “sinus rhythm” or AFib.
“The role that technology plays in allowing patients to capture meaningful data about what’s happening with their heart, right when it’s happening, as the functionality of an on-demand ECG, could be significant in new clinical care models and shared decision making between people and their health care providers,” said Nancy Brown, CEO of the AHA.
However, the apps will not work like an office-based EKG, which is conducted with usually a dozen electrodes scattered over the chest to detect and analyze the heart’s electrical signals.
One potential question mark surrounds false positives. Will users stress over the results or even understand them? Apple says it will educate users when they first start using the app, but that process was not previewed in advance.
Apple has also been working with various insurance companies, some of which are subsidizing the cost of the watch for customers. This brings up another concern — the prospect of insurers grabbing hold of any health data through the app. To this, Apple insists that it protects user privacy by encrypting the data on your devices and online through the iCloud. Still, when storing data on a remote server or cloud, users always run the risk of losing control of that information.