On March 16, Stanford researchers released results from the Apple Heart Study; this significant research project relied on data gleaned from some 420,000 adult Americans who agreed to wear an Apple Watch that monitored their cardiac rhythms to identify irregularities.
The study, which used an iPhone app to enroll participants, left observers questioning the role of wearable technology in the health care delivery system. According to the Wall Street Journal, some doctors pointed out that “potential false positives and other aspects of the study show that people should be cautious about relying on the technology as diagnostic tools.”
As we have previously written, companies in the health care ecosystem are looking to wearable technologies such as this to improve patient experiences and outcomes, while also reducing costs. Still in its nascent stages, wearable technology is far from a panacea for the industry, but we maintain that it will eventually play an outsized role in achieving these goals.
The Stanford study, which was funded by Apple, notes problems with the Apple Watch’s monitoring functionality (because the study was begun in 2017, it did not rely on the newest iteration of the Apple Watch). In addition, researchers admit to certain flaws; for example, the low rate of participants requesting and returning patches to electrocardiogram functionality, when appropriate, suggests that the Apple Watch monitoring technology only correctly identified irregular heart rhythms 34 percent of the time.
It’s important to note, however, that over half of the participants who received a notification of irregular heartbeat through the Apple Watch sought medical attention. The study does not address whether that cohort would have otherwise identified the signs of atrial fibrillation, or sought appropriate care once identified. The percentage is significant because it can be difficult to self-diagnose atrial fibrillation.
For payers and providers, data such as this could improve stroke outcomes and ultimately reduce the cost of caring for patients. For patients, an early warning system could be life-changing or lifesaving. The comprehensive benefits to all participants in the health care system will only expand as the technology improves.
Our takeaway? Rather than criticize the study’s failings, we should highlight wearable technology’s impending potential to improve health care for providers and patients alike. The functionality of today’s wearable technology is limited, but then so was that of the first smartphone.