Two months after Apple CEO Tim Cook said his company’s “greatest contribution to mankind” would be in health, a new study provides the first glimpse at how that vision is beginning to take shape.
The unprecedented analysis, known as the Apple Heart Study, involved teaming up with cardiologists at Stanford University and studying more than 400,000 people. Their aim was to learn whether the Apple Watch and its heart-rate sensor could properly pick up on irregularities in people’s heartbeat.
An early look at the work suggests it can. Of course, there are caveats.
The researchers are scheduled to present a summary of the Apple-sponsored study at the American College of Cardiology’s annual meeting on Saturday in New Orleans. The full study has not yet been published.
According to their presentation, the watch appeared capable of picking up on abnormalities linked with a common but serious condition called atrial fibrillation or afib. Afib is an irregular heartbeat, and people with the condition can experience shortness of breath and poor blood flow. The condition can also increase the risk of more serious problems like stroke and heart failure.
“The study’s findings have the potential to help patients and clinicians understand how devices like the Apple Watch can play a role in detecting conditions such as atrial fibrillation, a deadly and often undiagnosed disease,” Mintu Turakhia, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of cardiovascular medicine at Stanford, said in a statement.
While the research offers a hopeful glimpse at the power of the Apple Watch to improve people’s health, there is also a potential for the device to overburden the healthcare system, according to some researchers. That could happen if the device tells too many people that they have a health problem when they actually don’t.
Apple isn’t the only Silicon Valley tech giant with its eye on health. In recent years, companies such as Facebook, Google parent company Alphabet, and Fitbit have all made an effort to detect and prevent illness – whether it’s picking up on someone who might be at risk of suicide or diagnosing a condition like afib or sleep apnea. Still, ailments like afib – which is equal parts common, serious, and preventable – are a kind of holy grail.
Outside experts who reviewed Apple’s latest study see strengths and weaknesses in how it was done. Some major bright spots include the fact that it was done in collaboration with a well-respected university like Stanford, included lots of people, and took place over a fairly long time period. Additionally, the study design was kept separate from Apple, who funded it.