Apple uses Watch to help heart patients, launch major study

Apple is trying out something entirely new starting on Thursday - a medical study.

The company has released a new app that will use the Apple Watch's heart-rate monitor to check for irregular heart rates as part of a study it's running with Stanford University.

The Apple Heart Study can benefit patients, healthcare providers, and insurers. The study could save lives and incidentally also drive demand for its products.

While others have used Apple's software and devices in medical studies, this is the first time that it's actually sponsored one itself, showing that it is moving deeper into the health space.

"Working alongside the medical community, not only can we inform people of certain health conditions, we also hope to advance discoveries in heart science," said Apple chief operating officer Jeff Williams in a statement.

Health and fitness have been a key focus for Apple, especially since launching the Apple Watch two years ago. That has allowed the company to tap the $3 billion healthcare market and, analysts say, find new audiences for its products and services.

Wearables represent a massive opportunity to improve patient health and as a result, Apple's investing in hardware and software that can provide life-saving insight for people with an undiagnosed or chronic disease.

Apple already employs a small staff of medical professionals to develop its health products, and it is reportedly working on a diabetes glucose-monitoring device that won't pierce the skin.

It's also worked with hospitals to include more of its tech in patients' rooms.

The new study takes all of that a step further: Now Apple itself will be running a study and submitting data to the Food and Drug Administration.

The heart-rate researcher will look specifically at atrial fibrillation - or afib - which refers to an irregular heart rate and is a leading cause of stroke and other heart conditions. The condition kills around 130,000 people per year, according to estimates from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Users have to be over the age of 22 if they want to participate in the study.

Unlike traditional clinical studies that only enroll a limited number of participants at specific clinical trial sites, anyone owning an Apple Watch series one or later who is also age 22 or older is eligible to enroll. They only need to download Apple's Heart Study app from the Apple Store.

Patients download the app so that the Apple watch can begin monitoring for changes in heart rhythm. It does this by using algorithms to analyse data collected by green LED lights that can flash hundreds of times per second and light-sensitive photodiodes that can measure blood flow.

If the app detects an irregular heartbeat, it will notify that person on the Watch and iPhone. From there, he or she may opt to see a doctor online for a free consult on their health.

Apple and Stanford are partnering with Boston firm American Well to provide those consultations.

The study, while promising, is not perfect, experts said.

For one, atrial fibrillation is generally more prevalent in older people and obese individuals, Ron Blankstein, a cardiologist and associate professor at Harvard Medical School, told The Washington Post. That demographic may not be the biggest users of the Apple Watch yet.

Then there's the fact that not all irregular heartbeats are a sign of a serious condition, he said.

The Watch's heart monitors are not as precise as clinical diagnostic tools. This could lead to overtreatment, he said.

At least 33 million units of the Watch have been sold, according to Asymco analyst Horace Deidu - Apple itself does not officially release sales figures, nor information on who is buying the Watch.

But Apple researchers said they believe the Watch will provide a representative sample of the population for their study.

Apple declined to say how long the study will run and whether it would take on further research in the future.

Currently, healthcare is primarily reactive. For instance, Afib is typically diagnosed following a life-threatening event, not beforehand. Alternatively, the use of wearables that continuously monitor and report on patient health is proactive. Potentially, it will allow people to discover disease before it lands them in a hospital bed.

Apple is positioning its healthcare solutions as screening tools so it doesn't have to run the FDA gauntlet necessary for the approval of medical devices. Because it won't be positioned as a diagnostic tool, Apple appears to be interested in developing these healthcare solutions as a way to maintain its market share in wearables and win new customers, not as a way to generate new revenue from insurers.

According to Motley Fool, we won't know for a while if the Apple Heart Study is a success. It's possible that the study shows that Afib is more common than thought and potentially, less risky in certain patients than others. Nevertheless, the study provides insight into how Apple and its competitors hope to merge technology with healthcare.

The company's plans probably aren't going to end with Afib either. Apple's also working on ways to use its watch to monitor blood sugar levels. If it can do that, then it could help millions of diabetics manage their disease better and possibly help prevent millions of patients with pre-diabetes advancing to a diabetes diagnosis.