In the near future, the Apple Watch may become far more than just the neat gadget or fashion accessory it previously has been.
Hoping to add new meaning to the term “smartwatch,” Apple is reportedly developing a feature for its Apple Watch that would let it monitor heart rhythms and detect abnormal ones. Though it’s far from definitive at the moment that the feature will find its way into actual production, it has the potential to save lots of lives.
Apple currently seems to be developing a number of different prototypes of the feature. In one a user must squeeze the frame of the watch with fingers from the hand not wearing the device. This would initiate an electrocardiogram (EKG), by emitting a small amount of electric current into the user’s body and to their chest. It would then track electric signals coming from their heart and use them to detect abnormalities such as an irregular heart beat.
Irregular heart beats can lead to heart attacks and strokes, and they are commonly found in about 25% of people who are over 40 years old. EKGs are often available in hospitals, ambulances and doctor’s offices, but by their very nature they can only monitor heart rates for short periods of time. Even wearable devices can only continuously monitor hearts for a period of days at a time.
While Apple officially refused to confirm or deny that they are developing this feature, it would not be their first foray in using the watch to monitor heart health. In November, they released an app called Heart Study that employs the watch’s basic heart rate sensors to notify users if they may be experiencing atrial fibrillation (AFib). The condition causes 130,000 death per year and 750,000 hospitalizations, and symptoms don’t always accompany its onset.
Last month, Apple also announced a joint research project with Stanford University, where the two will study irregular heart rhythms. Michael O’Reilly, who is head of special health projects at Apple is a professor anesthesiology at Stanford as well. Participants in the study will use the Heart Study app to help identify irregularities.
Apple Watch owners already have the capability to perform EKGs, by using it in conjunction with a product called KardiaBand. This is a device made by a company called AliveCor, which has been approved by the FDA. The device performs EKGs over a bluetooth connection and works with every edition of the Apple Watch other than the original one.
These developments show just how far the Apple Watch has come in the few years it’s been available. The original version was marketed as purely a fashion accessory for the affluent. The focus of the second and third generation of the devices shifted to health and fitness, and now it may eventually become a true medical device.