Researchers Hope Your Apple Watch Could Soon Detect Early Signs of Heart Failure

Apple Watch S6 Blood Oxygen Sensor Credit: Apple
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Researchers at Toronto’s University Health Network have just found a potentially life-saving application for the new blood oxygen sensor on the Apple Watch Series 6: detecting the early signs of worsening heart failure.

In a new clinical study announced this week, UHN will be teaming up with Apple under the leadership of renowned cardiologist Dr. Heather Ross of the Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research to see if remote monitoring of patients with an Apple Watch can help to identify potentially serious heart conditions much earlier than normal.

Key to the study will be the Blood Oxygen app that was introduced to the newest Apple Watch model last fall, which will be combined with other sensor data and mobility metrics to compare against the other methods commonly used to diagnose worsening heart conditions, such as the rigorous physical tests that normally have a patient hooked up to multiple sensors while running on a treadmill.

The research group will consist of patients from the heart function program at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, who will be actively monitored for three months using an Apple Watch Series 6 and a paired iPhone, after which there will be a two-year follow-up period.

In this case, however, the study won’t simply involve monitoring patients as they go about their daily activities — they’ll also be required to perform traditionally clinic-based assessments, but they’ll be doing so in the comfort of their homes. For example, the study will look at whether heart rate and blood oxygen data collected during an active workout could be assessed in the same way as the data from a more traditional treadmill-and-sensor combo.

We think that biometric data derived from Apple Watch may provide comparable, precise, and accurate measurements of fitness, prognostic markers and early warning signals, compared to traditional diagnostics.

Dr. Heather Ross, lead researcher

The research team is already comprised of several members with extensive expertise in biomedical science, and the Peter Munk Digital Cardiovascular Health Platform has a representative sample group of 8,000 heart failure patients who are already being followed by UHN.

The role of the Apple Watch in improving heart health aligns closely with the aims of the study’s lead researcher, Dr. Ross, who has long sought ways in which technology can be used to reach patients who may not be able to travel to receive quality care after years of experience doing health care work in remote communities ranging from Mount Kilimanjaro to isolated Canadian First Nations communities.

My goal is to make high-quality care, accessible to everyone, no matter where they are. If we can use wearable technology to accurately monitor for essential diagnostics, we can reach all kinds of people, including vulnerable communities who traditionally have been challenged by issues of remote geography or homelessness.

Dr. Heather Ross, lead researcher

The University Health Network is a group of leading hospitals based in Toronto, Canada that’s affiliated with the University of Toronto, and conducts some of the leading medical research programs in the world in areas ranging from cardiology to infectious diseases and rehabilitation medicine. The Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research and the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre are part of the University Health Network, established specifically to provide cardiac care and research causes of and treatments for heart failure.

As with most health studies, this is a particularly long-term study, suggesting it may be years before there are any conclusive results, but it’s another good indication of how the new technological innovations that Apple introduces to its wearable each year are finding new applications beyond even Apple’s own goals.

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