Alongside its new iPhones and Apple TV, Apple recently unveiled its latest iteration of its popular smartwatch, the Apple Watch Series 3, at the company’s recent press event on 12 September. Together with a whole host of changes including cellular connectivity and integration of Apple’s personal assistant, Siri – the new Apple Watch Series 3 also comes with a new feature up its sleeve: health monitoring.

Series 3’s health detection functions

Since the inception of its first smartwatch, the Apple Watch has already been outfitted with a wealth of sensors and processing power to monitor and provide real-time health status, such as heart rate, steps taken and calories burnt. Now, the Series 3 model takes monitoring a step further with the integration of cellular data. Cellular capabilities allow for real-time data to be monitored, recorded and sent to any remote site. With this new degree of accessibility, healthcare services are able to detect irregularities in one’s heartbeat anytime throughout the day giving a better picture of patient’s progress and prognosis.

Rather than just monitoring data during exercise, the Apple Watch Series 3 is also able to track the wearer’s heart recovery after a workout during the cool-down period. According to Dr Eric Topol, a cardiologist and director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute, the cool-down period provides critical information about our heart’s fitness level stating, “Recovery is an important metric," further adding, "It's shown in many studies that if the heart rate recovery is slow, that suggests the heart condition is not ideal, and you need better conditioning. Providing that information is a new step forward for Apple.”

With all this powerful data at hand, Apple is not keen to let it go to waste as the tech giant is now working closely with heart experts at Stanford University to study and analyse this wealth data. It is with hope that the two parties will be able to create an algorithm to interpret wearer’s heart patterns. Similar to an electrocardiogram (ECG) that doctors use to detect abnormalities in one’s heartbeat, the Apple Watch will be able to detect abnormalities in its wearer’s heartbeat to identify heart problems such as atrial fibrillation, sleep apnoea and heart failure.

In conjunction with its studies, Apple is planning to launch its Apple Heart Study app through the App Store later this year. Furthermore, Apple has also been working closely with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), by providing results from studies based of the collected cardiac data from its smartwatches. More than just a tech demo, Apple has genuine hopes of applying the Apple Watch as a real-life diagnostic tool.

Future doctor? Not without first overcoming challenges

Despite its good intentions, Apple still faces a myriad of challenges before it can deem the Apple Watch as a medical tool. As such, Apple has rightfully remained mum about the ongoing heart studies. Three of the main hurdles that the Apple Watch faces in its stride include, providing accurate data, reaching at-risk groups and obtaining FDA approval.

As with any precision measuring device, especially one in the medical field, accuracy and consistency are of paramount importance. Failure to provide these cornerstones would result in inaccurate data often associated with false positives and false negatives. Whereas consumer devices have some degree of leeway, medical devices may lull patients into a false sense of security or anxiety with inaccurate results. Moreover, trust from the general public would corrode just as easily if the device’s accuracy is ultimately unproven.

Presently, the Apple Watch is more commonly found on the wrists of tech enthusiasts or health conscious individuals, not exactly the appropriate target group for health screening.
Presently, the Apple Watch is more commonly found on the wrists of tech enthusiasts or health conscious individuals, not exactly the appropriate target group for health screening.

Then, there is the matter of getting the Apple Watch to at-risk groups who are most likely to require the continuous heart monitoring. At present, the Apple Watch is more commonly found on the wrists of tech enthusiasts or health conscious individuals, not exactly the appropriate target group for health screening. "Most of what we see Apple doing is very broad, and on the health side, it has been tied to fitness," said Tim Bajarin, an analyst with the firm Creative Strategies. "But I don't think that specific audiences is out of the realm of possibility for them."

The Apple Watch Series 3 costs upwards of USD399. For many, that is a price too much to pay for what is simply perceived as a digital watch. As a possible alternative to this problem, Apple may find itself working with insurance companies in the future to subsidize the cost of the smartwatch.

Electrocardiograms (ECG) still remains to be the gold standard in detecting heart diseases – one of the hurdles that the Apple Watch will have to overcome
Electrocardiograms (ECG) still remains to be the gold standard in detecting heart diseases – one of the hurdles that the Apple Watch will have to overcome

Finally, the Apple Watch requires FDA approval before it can be first considered to be a medical screening tool. All of this brings us back to the first hurdle regarding accuracy. Apple may include the most technologically advanced array of sensors and algorithms but, it would be all for naught if the data is not accurate. Currently, the gold standard for diagnosing heart disease is an ECG machine which measures the electrical impulses of the heart. Compared to that, the Apple Watch’s heart rate sensor has a hard time competing, as explained by Bradley Merrill Thompson, an FDA expert with the law firm Epstein Becker & Green, "A heart rate sensor would have a very difficult time demonstrating the level of reliability and accuracy necessary for a diagnostic claim."

The bottom line

With the new Apple Watch Series 3, Apple has married two technologies, cellular data and continuous heart rate monitoring. While this new feature in Apple’s latest smartwatch still has a long way to go in identifying heart diseases based of aberrant heart beats, the potential for the technology certainly exists. Nonetheless, before it can manage that, it must first create an accurate and reliable heart rate monitoring tool, approved by the FDA and available easily to the masses. Until then, it just remains to be a very nice smartwatch, with Siri too of course. MIMS

Read more:
Healthcare technology: 3 wearable innovations doctors may soon be prescribing to patients
5 wearable technologies for the hospital
6 wearables that will change the landscape of healthcare

Sources:
http://time.com/4938488/apple-watch-continuous-heart-rate-monitor/
http://www.foxnews.com/health/2017/09/19/will-newest-apple-watch-save-lives.html
https://www.cnbc.com/2017/09/20/apple-watch-as-diagnosis-tool-cardioligists-skeptical.html
https://www.apple.com/apple-watch-series-3/
http://www.macworld.co.uk/news/apple/apple-watch-series-3-release-date-price-tech-specs-3647016/
https://www.cnbc.com/2017/09/11/apple-watch-caridac-arrhythmia-tests-stanford-american-well.html