With new ECG, Apple places heart health at core of latest watch launch

The latest Apple Watch will be able to measure a wearer’s heart rhythm and alert to irregularities, including electrocardiogram, leaders at the company have announced.

Describing the Series 4 Apple Watch as “the ultimate guardian for your health”, chief operating officer Jeff Williams revealed the device had a new electronic heart sensor built in.

“Now you can taken an ECG anywhere, any time right from your wrist,” Williams explained at a keynote event yesterday (13 September).

He claimed the process takes less than 30 seconds and that, once complete, the user immediately receives a report detailing whether their heart rhythm is regular or irregular.

Data is stored in the device’s Health App in a PDF which, Williams said, “you can share with your doctor”.

An electrocardiogram is a common test used to check the rhythm and electrical activity of the heart. It can be used to detect a range of problems including arrhythmias, when the heart’s rhythm is fast, slow, or irregular.

Heart rhythm problems can put individuals at increased risk of conditions including stroke.

ECGs are typically performed at a GP surgery or hospital.

While Williams claimed the Watch constituted “the first ECG product offered over the counter directly to consumers”, other companies have worked on making it possible to take a mobile ECG reading.

Most notable, arguably, is AliveCor’s KardiaMobile – an add-on device which works on both Apple and Android phones, and which has been trialled across the UK as part of the National Innovator Accelerator programme.

The device is available directly to consumers as well as being provided through healthcare organisations.

The company also produces a band for Apple Watches which enables the device to take an ECG. This was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) late last year.

Williams reported that the Apple ECG functionality is FDA approved, along with a separate new function which detects and alerts to low heart rate, to the applause and cheers which are now characteristic of the company’s product launches.

But there was a caveat that will be important to anyone in the UK: both the ECG and low heart rate features will be available “to US customers later this year,” said Williams. He added: “We are working hard to bring them to customers around the world.”

Falls detection too

Another new health feature announced was the device’s ability to detect falls – something Williams attributed to an improved accelerometer and gyroscope.

The chief operating officer said “a tremendous amount of data and analysis” had been required to identify the motions representative of someone have fallen over.

After detecting a fall, the watch delivers an alert from which the user can initiate an emergency call. “However, if the watch senses you are immobile for one minute, it will start the call automatically,” Williams explained.

“And it also sends a message with our locations to your emergency contacts using the SOS feature that is already built in.”

Apple has long signalled interest in the health market, and recently joined other technology giants in committing to the promotion of open standards in the US healthcare market.

But the latest announcements were greeted with reservation by some. Cardiologist and digital medicine researcher Eric Topol – who is currently leading a review on how to support the UK health and care workforce deliver a digital future – told National Public Radio in the US that he was concerned the device could increase the number of false positives for arrhythmias.

And on Twitter he noted the focus on FDA approval with wry amusement. “Interesting how #AppleEvent is making such a big deal about detection of atrial fibrillation when this has been possible by a @US_FDA approved #AI algorithm on AppleWatch Series 3 since November 2017,” he remarked.

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