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June 30, 2020

These new Apple Watch features could help doctors monitor you remotely

Daily Briefing

    Apple last week announced a series of updates coming to its Apple Watch as part of a new operating system called watchOS7—including a feature that will allow clinicians to remotely monitor their patients' movement and walking speed.

    According to Business Insider, Apple has not yet announced a launch date for the new operating system.

    Apple announces watchOS7 updates

    One of the several changes in the new operating system is an update to the iPhone and Apple Watch's motion sensors that will allow clinicians to monitor "functional (aerobic) capacity" via a variety of metrics, including their patients' low-range cardio fitness, walking speed, double support time, step length, and six-minute walking distance. According to CNBC, the data will be available in the fall via the Health app.

    To collect users' walking speed and "double support time"—a measure of when a user has both feet on the ground—Apple is partnering with Zimmer Biomet, an orthopedics product company. The service, called mymobility, could be useful for clinicians to monitor patients who have just had procedures such as knee or hip replacements to determine how quickly they're recovering, CNBC reports.

    Meanwhile, according to CNBC, physicians focused on cardiovascular health could appreciate the ability to track a patient's six-minute walking distance, which currently is measured using timed, supervised walks inside a clinic.

    Apple also announced that watchOS7 will feature a hand-washing timer that will activate when the watch's motion sensors determine the user is washing their hands. The timer counts down for 20 seconds—CDC's recommended timespan for washing hands—and then vibrates to let the user know the timer is done.

    The watchOS7 software also will feature a sleep tracking tool that allows the user to select their ideal time to go to sleep and wake up. When it's time to sleep, the watch screen will turn off and monitor for signals that the user has fallen asleep. In the morning, it will wake up the user with an alarm or a vibration on the wrist.

    However, unlike some other sleep trackers on the market, the Apple Watch won't tell users whether their sleep was restless, nor will it track their sleep cycle. Instead, the tracker will provide a daily readout on how long the user was in bed and asleep. The watch will also have a feature called Wind Down, which will assist with establishing a pre-bedtime routine.

    Apple also said a new feature will be added to its memoji function, allowing users to create a custom emoji that can include a face covering. In addition, for the first time, the watch will be able to track dancing as a workout option.


    Paul Friedman, a professor of medicine and chair of the cardiovascular medicine department at Mayo Clinic, said he believes wearables such as the Apple Watch will play an important role in measuring patients' functional capacity and how it changes over time. Such wearables can also provide a look into patients' daily lives, where they may behave differently than they would in a lab or clinic, Friedman said.

    Oliver Aalami, a vascular surgeon at Stanford University, said wearables can especially be important during the Covid-19 epidemic, as they could enable patients to perform tests or exercises at home, where they may be more comfortable. These sorts of wearables may also give physicians an index of overall activity, so they can assess declines in physical activity over long time periods.

    The Apple Watch could also be useful for monitoring patients' health during clinical trials, according to Jeffrey Wessler, a cardiologist. The watch would allow clinicians to asynchronously monitor trial participants to track how patients are responding to an intervention.

    However, Christopher Kelly, a cardiologist at North Carolina Heart and Vascular, said the mobility updates Apple has added may not be much of an improvement over already-available ways of tracking movement. Kelly said Apple should focus more on better medical monitoring.

    "Very few physicians use walking speed or stair ascent speed in everyday practice and can easily assess them if truly needed," he said. "We need more creative innovation from Apple that really offers medical value" (Farr, CNBC, 6/25; Farr, CNBC, 6/22; Leskin, Business Insider, 6/22; Fowler/Kelly, Washington Post, 6/22; Gurman, Bloomberg, 6/22).

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