Doctors cautious about new Apple Watch ability to detect heart problems

Apple Watch abnormality detected warning (image credit: Apple)
Apple Watch abnormality detected warning (image credit: Apple)(WBAY)
Published: Dec. 13, 2018 at 3:28 PM CST
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It's that time of year when holiday shopping leads to all kinds of new gadgets.

This year that may include the latest Apple Watch -- and it's what that watch can do that's caught the attention of Aurora BayCare cardiologist Dr. Scott Weslow.

"I've actually been surprised at how clear the EKG readout is," he says.

Just days after Apple released the latest version of its Apple Watch, patients are already asking Dr. Weslow about its ability to conduct an electrocardiogram.

"An EKG -- or an ECG, they're interchangeable -- is a test that measures the electrical activity going on in the heart. So this application for this watch or device has the capability to also detect the electrical activity in one's heart," explains Dr. Weslow. "The watch, when it gets an EKG reading, is going to tell you if it's sinus rhythm, which is the normal rhythm the heart is usually in; whether it's atrial fibrillation, which is a certain kind of abnormal heart rhythm; or whether it's indeterminate."

Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is the big one, according to this heart doctor, because that can lead to a weakened heart muscle or even stroke.

While some patients notice symptoms like a racing, skipping or fluttering heart, Dr. Weslow says others don't.

According to Apple, the watch could alert you if your heart goes into abnormal rhythm.

Apple's website says the company worked with the FDA and also conducted its own study to prove its accuracy.

Apple says electrodes built into the watch work in conjunction with a new app on your iPhone, and when a person holds their finger on the watch for a period of time, it monitors their heart.

But Dr. Weslow cautions, this is not the same test you'd receive from doctors.

"This is a 12-lead EKG," he says, pointing to a computer screen showing results from an EKG performed by doctors, "as opposed to what the Apple Watch will give you is a one-lead EKG."

While he says it could help alert patients to problems, Weslow also worries it could have a negative effect.

"Where someone may be having a cardiac symptom, and they look at their Apple Watch, and it says normal sinus rhythm, so they say, 'Oh, my heart must be doing OK. I'm not going to go in and get this checked out,'" explains Weslow. "And then we could miss something big."

"Big" like a heart attack, which is not the same thing as AFib or abnormal rhythms and not meant to be detected by the Apple Watch.

"This definitely does not detect a heart attack at all," he warns. "It should never be relied on for that."

Still, he's curious how technology like this will evolve to help patients in the future.

If you'd like more information about AFib or other heart problems, click on the links below or to the right.