Wearable technology has been around for over a decade. “Smart” devices are in our pockets, on our faces and on our wrists. If you do not own a smart device, you likely know someone who does. Over the past decade they have gone from being basic wristed mounted pedometers to high end fashion accessories that will monitor your heartrate, arm your security system, give you directions, play music, answer your phone and let you pay for your latte. They monitor your basic day to day activity, sleep & and heart rate, but can a smart watch save your life?
Smart Watches have grown in popularity over the past five years. Specifically, since 2015 when Apple got onboard the Smart Watch train and released the Apple Watch, back then it didn’t really do anything that your phone couldn’t already do. Fast forward to September 21, 2018 when the fourth version of the Apple Watch was revealed to house the technology needed to run an FDA (Food and Drug Administration) Approved ECG (Electrocardiogram) when paired with the ECG app. Apple sponsored a study with Stanford University prior to the release of this feature. The idea was to confirm the Apple Watch (with the ECG App) could reliably monitor pulse rates and detect when atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter have occurred. The study was to last 8 months and was based off the results of 419, 297 participants. Out of those 419,297 only 2161 were notified they had an irregular pulse. 450 of them did additional testing with ECG patches and 56 – 82 were found to have atrial fibrillation (“Large-Scale Assessment of a Smartwatch to Identify Atrial Fibrillation”). This means that out of those 2161 participants who were notified they had an irregular pulse, only 56 – 82 of them were positive. That number could have been much higher if all 2161 had taken additional tested, but only 450 did for whatever reason. Assuming 82 of them were actually positive, that means 2079 participants possibly had the scare of their lives for no reason.
On the other hand, the watch does more than just monitor your pulse. It has a Noise feature that alerts you when you may be in a situation where long-term exposer could cause permanent hearing damage. Reminds you to eat healthy and drink water (if you download the correct apps) and will call Emergency Services if it detects you fall down and do not hit the “I’m OK” button in time. Earlier this year CNET interviewed five people who claim the Apple Watch saved their lives. Three of them detected irregular pulse rates, which resulted in one man finding himself on the verge of cardiac arrest, a woman discovering they had hypothyroidism, and another man discovering he had an early heartbeat. The fourth fell down and hit his head in the middle of the night, and when the watch determined he was not responsive, it called 911 and send them his location. The fifth was able to use her Apple Watch to get Siri to call 911 for her and her baby after finding themselves in a serious car accident. (“Apple Watch saved my life: 5 people share their stories.”) It is hard to argue that the Apple Watch is not, at the very least, useful.
Personally, I have no first-hand knowledge of the Apple Watch itself. I have been using various Fitbit trackers over the last five years. At first, I wore one just to keep track of my steps and entertain fitness competitions with friends just for the sake of bragging rights. As time went on, as my stress and anxiety levels increased and I found myself worrying about my heart health, mostly due to my poor eating habits and the aforementioned stress. That’s when I decided to opt for a fitness tracker that would also monitor my pulse and my resting heart rate. That may have been a mistake. One day in late 2018 I found myself with the worst cold I have had in my adult life, and it wasn’t going away. My lungs were hurting, and according to that Fitbit Charge 2 tracker on my wrist, my pulse was constantly at 110 beats per minute or higher, just sitting down. This scared the doctor enough to send me in for an ECG that instant, and the nervous tone of his voice made my heart rate skyrocket even higher. It turns out too much information can be bad for you. I was just stressed out and had nothing but a bad cold that I just had to wait out, but if that ECG had given me a false positive, I could have been undergoing more unnecessary testing, and possibly an unneeded surgery. I would have put more strain on a healthcare system that doesn’t need it, and that was just because my Fitbit provided instant information that wasn’t accurate. Even if it was accurate, there is such thing as too much information. Some people can live long full lives with an irregular heartbeat and never know they had one. The whole experience had me questioning how “smart” this Smart Watch really was, as it had me feeling pretty dumb. Still, there is that fall down feature on the Apple Watch that could be useful on all Smart Watches. I think about the people in my life that could have benefitted from such technology in the past or could in the future. As our parents and grandparents get older, it is a comforting thought that just by wearing a watch they could spend more years living independently in the comfort of their own homes, rather than adding additional strain on the resources of assisted living facilities. The worst thing that could happen to someone when they are living alone or having mobility issues is falling down and not knowing if some will find them in time. As proven in the CNET article “Apple Watch saved my life: 5 people share their stories,” the device will detect you have fallen down and use it’s built in GPS to alert emergency services to your location if you are unresponsive, or will allow you to use Siri to call for help if you need it.
Can your Smart Watch save your life? That depends on what you’re looking to get out of it. The false positives on the heart rate detection would lead one to say no, but you can never be too careful. It would at least prompt a conversation with a doctor about heart health, and in the long term, that could save a life. When it comes to heart health, a person would be better off just eating right, exercising and going for regular check-ups with their family doctor. It would be more likely to say a device like the Apple Watch could save the life of someone who lives alone or is worried about losing their balance, falling downstairs, or known for losing consciousness. The build in fall detection, GPS and calling emergency services makes the device worth the $500+ price tag. Having a device on a patient’s wrist that can call for help and get them to a hospital for treatment within minutes of a head injury, like a concussion, could save their life and prevent permanent brain damage. To answer the question, yes, your Smart Watch can save your life, as long as you have the right device and manage your expectations of what it can do.
Perez MV, et al. “Large-Scale Assessment of a Smartwatch to Identify Atrial Fibrillation.” The New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 381, no. 20, 2019, pp. 1909–1917., doi:10.1056/NEJMoa1901183.
Hand Orellana, Vanessa. “Apple Watch saved my life: 5 people share their stories.” cnet.com, 28 Apr. 2020, cnet.com/news/apple-watch-saved-my-life-5-people-share-their-stories/