Why Apple has nixed many health care features in its smartwatch

Regulatory hurdles among concerns for health-related features

The Apple smartwatch set to be released in April lacks some health-related technology components that the company had originally envisioned, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Background on Apple Watch

According to individuals familiar with the smartwatch, Apple had planned to produce a state-of-the-art health monitoring device that, among other things, would measure wearers' blood pressure, heart activity and stress levels.

When Apple announced the watch's release in September 2014, the company said that at its launch, the device would use a built-in application suite consisting of two apps:

  • An Activity app that tracks day-to-day exercise activity, movement and minutes standing per day; and
  • A Workout app that allows users to set a goal based on calories, distance, heart rate or time.

In addition, the company said a companion Fitness app on users' iPhones would aggregate data from both the Activity and Workout apps and share that data with Apple's cloud-based health information platform HealthKit, which was announced earlier last year.

More than a dozen top hospitals are testing Apple's HealthKit

Further, Apple said the watch would have the ability to:

  • Use a built-in accelerometer to track people's movements;
  • Monitor heart rates through optical sensors located in the back of the watch; and
  • Use data from GPS and WiFi on users' iPhones to collect additional information.

The Apple Watch is expected to launch at a starting price of $349. It will require users to use an iPhone as its wireless foundation.

Apple faced troubled with health technology

However, individuals familiar with the device told the Journal that the Apple Watch does not include tools to monitor individuals':

  • Blood pressures;
  • Heart activity; and
  • Stress levels.

The individuals said that development on those features faltered and were ultimately left out of the first version of the watch. Specifically, they said the heart rate and stress level monitoring tools in the watch did not work accurately on all individuals, such as those with hairy arms or dry skin. In addition, they noted that results varied depending on how tightly users wore the watch. Instead, the watch will have a pulse-rate monitoring feature.

Apple also experienced consistency issues with tools to monitor individuals' blood pressures or blood oxygen levels.

Further, Apple avoided tools that would interpret users' data to offer health or behavior advice because it would have required them to seek regulatory approval.

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According to the Journal, the device will include a motor that will share information with the wearer through vibrations or taps, and users will be able to perform different functions based on how hard they touch the screen (Wakabayashi, Wall Street Journal, 2/16; iHealthBeat, 9/10/14).

The takeaway: The Apple Watch will have tools to help users monitor their heart rate and activity levels, but more ambitious health-related features were left out because of technical and regulatory challenges.

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