Apple and researchers from Stanford Medicine released some new results from a study of more than 400,000 participants, who were given Apple Watches eight months ago to monitor their heart rhythm to signs of a medical condition known as atrial fibrillation. The watches are not the newest version, which has an electrocardiogram built-in, but are able to detect abnormal heartbeats.
The results were presented on stage this weekend at the American College of Cardiology conference in New Orleans, prompting a wide range of reactions from the cardiologists who attended. The discussion was not just limited to the Apple Watch, but about the role of consumer wearables more broadly in screening and potentially even diagnosing disease.
In interviews with CNBC, some in the medical community pointed to the high participation in the study as reason enough for optimism — 419,000 is far higher than most medical research studies — while others expressed concern that Apple Watch would produce many false alarms.
Most agreed that the results presented on stage were still preliminary, as the full paper has not been published in a scientific journal. Moreover, it was an observational study, and not a randomized controlled trial. (Apple is moving ahead with study of this kind that includes a control arm for the heart health features on its Apple Watch, in partnership with pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson.)
Atrial fibrillation is an important health target for Apple, as it impacts up to six million people in the United States, but many of them have not been diagnosed. For some people, especially those over the age of 65, the condition can put them at a higher risk for serious health complications, including strokes.
Heart health is the focus of Apple’s efforts in health care, so it’s vital for the company to win over the support of cardiologists. At this stage, Apple is ahead of its rivals, including Alphabet and Samsung, in introducing novel health features to its devices. But to win over the medical community, it needs to open up a dialog about the pros and cons, and publish research in scientific journals, which is not in the DNA of a company that has historically prized secrecy.
For Apple, its inaugural heart study with Stanford represents an important first step, and just one of its ongoing medical research efforts.
“We’re trying to be thoughtful about how we introduce this in partnership with the medical community,” said Sumbul Desai, a physician and Apple’s vice president of health, in an interview with CNBC. “We want to hear (from doctors) about all the positives and all the negatives.”