Apple Inc. is developing an advanced heart-monitoring feature for future versions of its smartwatch, part of a broader push by the company to turn what was once a luxury fashion accessory into a serious medical device, according to people familiar with the plan.
A version being tested requires users to squeeze the frame of the Apple Watch with two fingers from the hand that’s not wearing the device, one of the people said. It then passes an imperceptible current across the person’s chest to track electrical signals in the heart and detect any abnormalities like irregular heart rates.
Such conditions can increase the risk of strokes and heart failure and develop in about one-quarter of people over 40, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
These medical tests, known as electrocardiograms or EKGs and ECGs, are common in doctors’ offices, hospitals and ambulances. But they only monitor the heart’s activity for short periods, limiting their ability to spot potential abnormalities. There are wearable versions such as the Holter monitor, but these track the heart continuously for a few days at most.
Apple’s current Watch has a more basic heart rate monitor, but the company is increasingly trying to use advanced sensors to predict future afflictions, rather than simply collect historical data about the body. An EKG would make it easier to establish the health of a user’s heart, and potentially spot some cardiac problems early.
The development process is ongoing and Apple may still decide not to include the technology in future products, the people said. They asked not to be identified talking about private plans. Apple spokeswoman Amy Bessette declined to comment.
“I can see a role for wearable ECGs as a mechanism to diagnose arrhythmia as an adjunct to what is currently available,” said Ethan Weiss, a cardiologist at the University of California, San Francisco.