Toronto-based researchers measuring whether Apple Watch can spot early signs of worsening heart failure

The University Health Network study is being conducted in collaboration with the tech giant, and will enroll roughly 200 patients for three months of active monitoring with a two-year follow-up.
By Dave Muoio
02:43 pm
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University Health Network (UHN), a research collaborative supported by Toronto-area health organizations, is spinning up its academic study on heart-health monitoring via the Apple Watch.

Conducted in collaboration with the tech giant and first name-dropped last fall, the project looks to determine whether or not blood oxygen, mobility and other types of data collected through the smartwatch's various sensors can inform earlier identification of worsening heart failure.

"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, division head of cardiology at UHN's Peter Munk Cardiac Centre and the study's lead investigator, said in a statement from the organization.

Ross and her team will enroll eligible patients receiving care through the center's heart function program. These participants will be actively monitored for three months, during which time in-home readings from the iPhone and Apple Watch Series 6 devices will be compared to those collected by standard means. It will also include a two-year follow-up with the patients, who can opt-out of the study at any time.

Per an interview with TechCrunch, Ross and colleagues have already begun enrollment and are planning to eventually bring in about 200 patients of varying ages and demographics.

WHY IT MATTERS

Heart conditions are the leading cause of death worldwide, and early identification can help care teams intervene and prevent premature deaths. If consumer devices such as the iPhone and Apple Watch can adequately spot telltale signs of these diseases among those identified as at risk, teams can expand their health monitoring outside of the hospital in a way that's more convenient – and in some cases accessible – to wider populations.

"My goal is to make high-quality care, accessible to everyone, no matter where they are," Ross said. "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." 

THE LARGER TREND

Apple has taken a major interest in positioning the Apple Watch as a health and wellness device. In recent years it has participated in or backed a number of studies focused on device-driven health monitoring.

Its landmark effort was the Apple Heart Study, a Stanford-led investigation that launched in 2017 and delivered its findings two years later. The company has continued its work within the cardiac-health research space via the Heartline Study with Johnson & Johnson and Evidation Health, and it made the first announcement of this UHN study in September of last year.

Meanwhile, an independent study conducted by the Mayo Clinic found evidence that the Watch's abnormal pulse detection feature is likely fueling a wave of unnecessary healthcare visits among worried consumers.

Apple's wearable has been at the center of health research focused on COVID-19 detection as well. Some more prominent findings came from the Scripps Research Translational Institute's DETECT program (which also included other devices, such as Fitbits), and from data via Mount Sinai's Warrior Watch Study published earlier this month.

ON THE RECORD

“Surfacing heart-health insights has played a key role in the evolution of Apple Watch, and we’re continually humbled by the responses we hear from users on the impact it has had on their lives,” Dr. Sumbul Desai, Apple’s VP of health, said in a statement.

“We’re thrilled to be collaborating with UHN and Dr. Heather Ross to better understand how the powerful sensors in Apple Watch can potentially help patients better manage heart failure, from the comfort of their own home.”  

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