Chris Netherton, M.D.

Keeping a close watch on the health of your heart

A major new study into heart health was recently launched in the USA. What is unique about this project is that it is being sponsored by Apple, and each person’s heart data will be gathered via their Apple Watch.

The Apple Watch contains a sensor for monitoring the heart. It has LED lights that flash hundreds of times each second to detect the quantity of blood flowing through the wrist. Data is gathered from four points on the wrist and the software algorithms then look for patterns to isolate irregular heart rhythms. The Apple Heart Study is being managed by Stanford University School of Medicine and aims to test out this technology with thousands of adults aged over 22 years, in order to ascertain whether it can be used to accurately diagnose irregular heart rhythms.

While heart arrhythmias aren’t necessarily a sign of serious disease, they can sometimes be an indicator of atrial fibrillation. Often, this condition does not have any outward symptoms but it is one of the leading causes of strokes. Worldwide, it is estimated that atrial fibrillation currently affects over 33 million people.

To take part in the study, people will need to have an iPhone and an Apple Watch, and will have to download a specially designed app to gather and analyse the data. If anyone participating in the study is found to have heart arrhythmia, then they will be contacted by the Stanford Medical team and offered a free video consultation with a doctor and a wearable ECG patch to carry out further diagnostic monitoring of their heart. (Early last year, a separate study showed that the Apple Watch can detect heart irregularity with 97 percent accuracy. This shows that it has a role to play as a screening tool, while not being accurate enough for full diagnosis.)

There are bound to be people who will be concerned about generating unnecessary anxiety with patients, leading to a lot of follow up work which may not be needed. Despite these concerns, I think this innovative approach has a lot to recommend it.

It offers a completely new way of recruiting patients and gathering large scale data in a relatively short space of time. The Apple Heart Study has the potential to attract a sample of hundreds of thousands of users, which is an extraordinary number compared to many other studies. If this approach proves successful, then it could be a technique for rapidly increasing our knowledge about other chronic conditions.

Participation in the study is made very easy for the user and is something that they can fit into their daily routine. That is essential if we are to use wearable tech for a more proactive approach to healthcare, aiming for early intervention and treatment before a patient’s symptoms become acute.

At Microtest, we know how vital it is to protect patient data and this has been factored into the Apple Heart Study. User information goes to a secure database and their name and other identifying information is replaced with a random code to guard their privacy. This careful protection of user data is absolutely vital if we are to gain public trust and cooperation in using analysis to help advance medical knowledge – and maximise the use of patient data to improve their overall healthcare.

The Apple Heart Study is due to run through until the end of January 2019. It will be fascinating to see what results it yields.