Apple Rumor Mill Suggests iWatch Will Predict Heart Attacks

7-22-2013 11-02-58 PM

Both the San Francisco Chronicle and Business Insider are reporting that the highly anticipated Apple iWatch will include functionality that actively monitors the cardiovascular system and alerts wearers just prior to the onset of a heart attack. The feature would without question draw the regulatory scrutiny of the FDA and is expected to rely on new and largely untested cardiovascular monitoring technologies, making the rumors improbable, but worth dissecting none the less.

The story behind this particular rumor starts with a 2011 LinkedIn update that indicated Apple had hired legendary sound engineer Tomlinson Holman from Lucasfilm, the inventor of THX and 10.2 surround sound. Early rumors assumed that he would be working to improve sound quality of iPhones, iPods, and MacBooks.

However, according to an unnamed source cited by the San Francisco Chronicle, Holman is actually working in Cupertino Labs on a medical-oriented aspect of the iWatch: heart attack prediction. The team Hofman leads is exploring ways of measuring “noise turbulence as it applies to blood flow.” The functionality will be able to detect audio changes in blood flow that correlate with an impending heart attack, and then alert a wearer of the emergency so that aspirin could be taken and paramedics could be called. If effective, it would undoubtedly save countless lives.

Apple is not the first or only wearables company associated with acoustic blood flow monitoring. Angel Sensors, a startup building a wearable device with an open source API backend that will allow developers to access the data for inclusion in existing apps, touts acoustical pulse and blood flow monitoring as a feature that will be included in its initial release. The technology, like many in the wearable devices field, is untested and generates more excitement amongst the media than medical experts.

If history has proven anything, it’s that most Apple rumors don’t pan out. There are a few reasons to raise an eyebrow at this one in particular. First, Apple is near religious about securing patents for novel work, and there are no reports of new Apple patents for audio-based cardiovascular monitoring systems. Second, if Apple is going to embrace new, untested technology for medical purposes then it would need FDA (and EU for European markets) approval, and that approval would likely come at the end of a long and expensive clinical trial.

Generally, iWatch functionality rumors tend to stem from a single source of information – new hires (read: LinkedIn profile updates). When Apple hires a digital health or medical sensor expert, the media often looks at the technical projects that person had led in the past and then presumes that at Apple they will be responsible for introducing that specific functionality to the iWatch.

Several examples of this exist already. Apple is rumored to be building an iWatch that can monitor blood glucose levels because it hired: Nancy Dougherty out from under Sano Intelligence where she was working on transdermal patches that supposedly monitor glucose levels non-invasively; and Todd Whitehurst, a Senseonics VP who oversaw an entire product line of continuous glucose monitors; and Ueyn Block, a medical sensor expert with C8 MediSensors that was working on a non-invasive optical glucometer. All three had extensive experience developing state-of-the-art glucometers, but the reality is that it’s not reasonable to assume that Apple is building a game changing glucometer just because three employees, at a company of 80,000, have a background designing them.

While it is unlikely that the first version of the iWatch will predict heart attacks, non-invasively monitor glucose, or deliver any other function that would fundamentally disrupt healthcare, what is clear is that Apple is steadily recruiting a very capable and forward thinking team of mobile health professionals and that together this team will design a new wearable device heavily focused on capturing health metrics and helping consumers understand the meaning behind them. This is important because in the world of consumer electronics, where Apple goes the rest follow.

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