Could an Apple Watch Save Your Life?

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As a science communicator and a person who is generally interested in cool tech, I think I surprise a lot of people by not being an early adopter. A lot of my friends rush to buy the newest gadgets, while I am generally happy to be writing the script for this video, and later will be editing this video, on a 7-year old laptop.

The reason is because I love advances in technology but I hate consumerism — I think the world would be a way better place if we stop throwing away things just because there’s something shinier we can buy. As a society, we’re going into debt while producing more waste, and working people to the bone to make us things we don’t need and are just going to throw away within the year.

With that anti-consumerism screed out of the way, I was watching the latest Apple keynote with interest. I mean hey, I’m in the industry and it’s at least helpful to know what’s going on. Plus I get some good comedy Tweets out of it.

I do tend to use Apple products, and I do have an Apple watch, which I bought because I eventually want a future with Dick Tracy watches. I want to make and receive phone calls on my wrist, and to not have to worry about carrying a phone with me everywhere I go. Plus I just think watches are cool. I know, I know, there are exceptions to my anti-consumerism.

While I won’t be upgrading my watch this year, I was really impressed with what Apple is doing with their watches and with the software on them. They’re really focused on health apps, and I currently use my watch to monitor my progress on runs, to make sure I’m moving enough during the day (since most of my day is spent on my ass, writing), and even to check out my heartrate when I go surfing. Here’s what my heart rate looked like last year when a shark’s fin surfaced about ten feet from me!

With this year’s watch, Apple is stepping up their health game. They’ve teamed up with an app called Cardiogram and heart researchers at UCSF to clinically study whether or not an Apple watch can detect atrial fibrillation, which is a heart arrhythmia that can lead to stroke. One in four people have it, but nearly half of those people have no idea they have it. That’s why it’s so dangerous, and also why it would be helpful if there were a way to let otherwise healthy people know that they have it. After all, ideally you want to discover you have a deadly condition before it turns deadly.

Doctors can’t convince a bunch of healthy people to walk around with wearable electrocardiograms, but a lot of people are already walking around with Apple watches. By putting electrodes on the watch, researchers were able to collect data from patients with atrial fibrillation before and after they got treatment to correct it. They were then able to use that data to train software to detect the condition in people wearing the watch. Just wearing the watch itself can’t make it an ECG, because that requires a closed circuit that goes through your heart (though you could do by touching a hand to the crown of your watch!), but the watch alone can detect the rate and rhythm of your heart to figure out if a real ECG might be necessary for you. The software was extremely good at doing this in laboratory conditions, and less reliable but still very good in real world conditions, where people are moving around more, wearing sunscreen that gets in the way of the electrodes, and basically doing things that make it a little trickier to determine exactly what their hearts are up to.

In the next month, these watches will be on the wrists of millions of people. Last quarter they sold 4.7 million watches…if they do that next quarter (and if most of those sales are the newest version of the watch), that’s more than a million people with atrial fibrillation who will have the watches, and about 500,000 people who have the condition but don’t know it. According to the real world tests, about 70% of them will be alerted. That’s 350,000 people who might learn that they have a potentially deadly disorder. That happens to be exactly how many people die every year in the US from atrial fibrillation.

That’s all back of the envelope stuff, and I’m not saying that Apple watches will suddenly stop all deaths from atrial fibrillation. Far from it — most people who have the occasional a-fib won’t die from it. And there are definite problems, with the initial study and the implementation — the algorithm was trained using only 50 people with the condition, and only having a 70% rate of true positives means that there will be plenty of false positives, which will lead to people unnecessarily being scared and wasting their doctors’ time. And Apple watches are really freaking expensive, so the only people buying them are the people who already have decent insurance. The people who can’t afford to go the doctor anyway probably can’t afford an Apple watch.

But this is still a great start. The software has already saved the life of one tech blogger who was in an early testing phase of the software, and you can read about how the software popped up an alert and allowed him to connect with a doctor directly through the app, who sent him a proper wearable ECG and then sent the data to his doctor, who was able to confirm the blogger was spending about 30% of his day in a-fib, which is extremely dangerous and would eventually lead to blood clots and stroke.

(On a side note, I was relieved to see that the alert doesn’t just say “go to the doctor.” It connects you with someone immediately, which should help screen out false positives and reduce the burden on doctors and the potential paranoia in users.)

If algorithms like this catch on, and if smart watches catch on, then in the future we may be able to have more economical options for people who currently can’t afford them. And with more people wearing things like this, we’ll get more data, which will lead to more accurate alerts. And this isn’t just for atrial fibrillation: a watch can also warn you about things like diabetes, and sleep apnea, and high blood pressure.

So I’m not saying that everyone should run out and go into debt for an Apple watch, but I am saying that if you were going to blow that money on shiny new baubles anyway, you could do worse than supporting some tech that might end up saving some lives. Plus the next time an apex predator pops up next to you, you’ll be able to see exactly how freaked out you are.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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