Apple wants to save your heart one Apple Watch at a time
The Apple Watch has come a long way since 2015.
The original version of the device couldn’t make calls, and lacked most of the fitness tracking features that have made it an indispensable gym companion for millions. But the Watch's development team, led by COO Jeff Williams, has tinkered with the formula to morph the wearable into an all-around health powerhouse with the Series 4, which launches today with potentially revolutionary heart features.
There's a built-in ECG monitor, which Apple says is the first ever in a consumer product, and a heart rhythm monitor, which alerts wearers to potentially irregular heartbeats, a leading cause of stroke and other potentially fatal conditions. Both features received FDA clearance and are projected to launch later this year.
Bringing Heart to the Apple Watch
Williams admits that such groundbreaking health specs weren’t always on the radar for the wearable. He told MensHealth.com in an exclusive briefing at Apple HQ in Cupertino, California, that all changed when the development team started getting feedback from happy Apple Watch wearers.
“We’d get letters from customers saying, 'I was checking my heart rate and I found a problem and went to the doctor,' and it evolved from there,” Williams said. That feedback led to the high heart rate notification in the Series 3, which is when Williams says the Watch really became “something looking after you,” instead of just a heart rate measurement device you could check.
When Apple decided to double down on the more targeted health features, Williams admits there were some doubters. But the opportunity to fulfil a greater potential hinted at by those customer letters was too big to pass up.
"ECG AND MEDICAL INFORMATION CONJURES UP A CERTAIN IMAGE, BUT IT OUGHT TO BE A FRIENDLY THING."
The key here is that Apple isn't introducing a tool meant to replace a visit to the doctor. Instead, the Apple Watch's heart features are designed to give its wearers more information to take into their appointments. “Instead of worrying about it crossing into the regulated and the doctor’s area, we can empower both the patient and the physician with more information about their relationship,” Williams said.
Another potential benefit of introducing the heart health features in one of the most popular consumer products in the world is breaking down the stigma around the actual procedures that doctors use to save lives. The Apple Watch ECG screen is a striking, sleek image — a far cry from the reality of a standard ECG (or EKG) test, with multiple leads attached to a patient's body in a sterile environment.
"ECG and medical information conjures up a certain image, but it ought to be a friendly thing," Williams said. "It shouldn't feel like you stepped into a hospital."
What comes next?
Time will tell if Apple's heart health features will pay off, as they won't launch until later this year if all goes according to plan.
Even so, Williams and his team are working to add even more health and fitness capabilities to the Watch. The device is glaringly behind competitors like Fitbit when it comes to sleep tracking, which has come into focus as a major component of overall health. When asked about any plans for sleep features, Williams demurred, and told me the company has nothing to announce at the moment.
For gym junkies like myself, a weight lifting feature would be fantastic, too. But there's another impediment there: Apple's famous demand for simplicity and perfection. Williams said that features are added to the final product only once they've cleared that standard.
"There's still more to do, but we only want to do things when we can do them really well. We spend a lot of time making sure that everything we deliver is as accurate as possible.