Misinformation about Apple Watch's health features spreads

By Brian Dolan
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Brian Dolan - MobiHealthNews Editor-in-ChiefApple hasn't changed any of the health sensors or features of its soon-to-launch Apple Watch device since it first announced it last fall. That may be common knowledge to most, but there seems to be a growing number of people who believe Apple scrapped its health features in February. Well, it didn't.

A few weeks ago The Wall Street Journal published a must-read exclusive that reported Apple had originally envisioned the Apple Watch as an advanced health sensing device. By the time CEO Tim Cook unveiled it on stage last September, however, most of its health sensing features had been scrapped. The WSJ story was an interesting look at the device's evolution during its development -- not a big scoop on changes Apple had made since the Watch was revealed.

While the Apple Watch's actual health-related feature set includes heart rate sensing, activity tracking, calories burned and a reminder to stand up after the wearer sits too long, at one time during its development Apple was working to also include blood pressure tracking, electrocardiogram (EKG) sensing, skin conductivity sensing, and blood oxygenation sensing, according to the WSJ. None of those four will be part of the feature set of the first generation of the device, but none of those were promised on-stage at the Apple Watch's debut event either.

To sum that all up: On February 16th Apple didn't scrap any health features from the Apple Watch, that's just when The Wall Street Journal wrote a story about features Apple once considered including in its Watch. Accuracy issues and possible regulatory concerns led to them to scrap plans for those features several months ago. 

Still, that was a tricky story to write clearly. It's also tough for some publications to write stories based on an original source -- The Wall Street Journal -- that's behind a paywall. Maybe some went to second-hand sources as a result. Many publications chose headlines that might leave some less-than-careful readers with the impression that Apple had removed some of the health features it showed off at the device's debut.

Here are a few headlines: "Sensor issues forced health features to be cut from Apple Watch." "Dropped health monitoring functions won't hinder Apple Watch sales." "WSJ: Apple cut watch health features due to erratic sensors."

They are each, arguably, factually accurate, but the headlines alone suggest Apple cut health features from its device when those features were actually never promised to the public, at least not by Apple.

We could have been a bit clearer with ours too. I wrote the headline for MobiHealthNews' version of the story: "Report: Accuracy concerns led Apple to cut advanced health features from Apple Watch." Regular MobiHealthNews readers would know the Apple Watch had no "advanced" health features when it was unveiled, but the passing reader might not.

As superficially confusing as all that might be, some publications actually did get the facts of the story wrong.

One example: Esquire, which called its short piece "Apple Cuts Several Health Features From the Apple Watch", wrote that the WSJ had reported that "Apple developers have nixed a handful of product developments originally conceived for the watch, including the ability to monitor a wearer's heart rate... For potential users who planned on using the Apple Watch for workout purposes, this is surely a setback."

Of course, the Apple Watch still features heart rate tracking. The early prototypes included more advanced EKG sensing, according to the WSJ report, but heart rate sensing is one health-related feature the Watch will include.

Last week at the ePharma Summit in New York City it became clear these reports were, perhaps inadvertently, spreading misinformation. Here's how one speaker, who was introduced as an "mHealth and wearables expert" explained the current state of the Apple Watch, which they referred to repeatedly as the "iWatch":

"So, iWatch. This is going to change everything. Let me tell you, especially in health, it is going to be revolutionary to the healthcare industry. Except they took all the health features off about two weeks ago. No more health features. Why did Apple take all the health features off, all the sensors off of their phone, er, their iWatch? Because they said, they don't work. And they said, 'We can't possibly release the product if it doesn't work any more than the other products we have that don't work, right? Because if we haven't figured this out, then no one can figure this out. So we're going to wait until somebody else figures this out first, and we'll just release a watch...'"

Unfortunately, about 80 people sitting in the room either accepted this as new information or failed to stand up to correct the speaker. I wish I had pulled a Susannah Fox and done the latter.

Here's our coverage of the Apple Watch debut event from September 2014. It's just as true now as it was then. Apple hasn't taken away any of the features it announced last fall. And while there's no reason to expect them when the Watch launches in April, perhaps some of those "advanced" health features will make their way into future iterations of the wearable, too.

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