Apple's Next Project: Tackling Heart Disease

Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL) is launching the Apple Heart Study, a program that will explore if using the Apple Watch to monitor heart rhythm can benefit patients, healthcare providers, and insurers. The study could save lives and drive demand for its products, so let's take a closer look.

Technology merges with healthcare

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.

The Apple Heart Study will use Apple Watches to hunt out irregular heart rhythms. The goal of the study is to demonstrate that an Apple Watch can spot atrial fibrillation (Afib), a life-threatening heart condition that's the leading cause of stroke. AFib causes 130,000 deaths and 750,000 hospitalizations in the United States, so the potential for this study to meaningfully impact patients shouldn't be underestimated.

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.

Here's how it works. Patients download the app so that the Apple watch can begin monitoring for changes in heart rhythm. It does this by using algorithms to analyze 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 watch detects an irregular heart rhythm, then patients can get a free phone or video consultation with a remote doctor. Depending on how that consultation goes, patients may be referred to the ER for tests or sent an electrocardiogram patch that can be used to officially diagnose Afib.

Turning an industry on its head

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.

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.

At this point, we're only in the early innings of exploring how wearables may be used in healthcare, but that doesn't mean early efforts can't contribute meaningfully to Apple's top and bottom lines. If the study saves lives, then the Apple Watch could become a must-own device.

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