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Will the Apple Watch heart-monitoring app make you healthier?

Posted Monday, September 17, 2018 by Tyler Goldberg-Hoss

Recently Apple came out with a new feature for its Watch – a heart monitoring application that can accurately detect a person’s irregular heart rhythm, among other things. In fact, Apple sought and received FDA approval as a “Class 2 Medical Device”. Such a rhythm, called atrial fibrillation or “a-fib”, can have serious health consequences, increasing the risk of stroke and heart failure.

Certainly, finding undiagnosed a-fib can be a good thing – leading to simple, non-invasive treatment (typically blood thinning medication) that may avoid catastrophic consequences. However, problems can arise if the app “catches” an irregular heart rhythm, yet it is a false positive: it says you have it when you don’t.

It can also signal other potential red flags for users who, without any medical training, may incorrectly interpret the results. For example, a long distance runner will be prone to lower heart rates (bradycardia). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, yet inexperienced wearers may be sufficiently alarmed to seek medical attention.

These and other unintended consequences have the potential to increase the number of visits to health care providers by Apple Watch wearers concerned about non-existent medical conditions. And those same doctors may be in for a “data dump” – patients sending in EKG readings over and over again.

This increases the load on the medical system, and may further result in unnecessary testing, some of which may carry risks. Further, from a medical negligence standpoint, what duty arises on the part of the health care provider whose patient sends in EKG data from his or her watch? If the EKG is one of dozens sent in, and shows an undiagnosed irregularity, and the patient goes on to suffer a stroke, what then?

Certainly this new application shows promise. It does however come with the possible for unintended, and negative, consequences. More data is needed before coming to any definitive conclusions, at least in the form of how these Watches are used in the context of health care.

In particular, one would hope as more and more gadgets are used to monitor vital signs, that health care institutions and organizations governing health care develop reasonable guidelines for accepting, analyzing, and using such data in the future.

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