Blood Pressure Tracking Is Coming to the Apple Watch… Eventually

The Apple Watch is arguably the most successful consumer health product of all time, allowing users to track a wide range of biometric data while shipping over 33m units in 2020 alone.

That’s why when the Wall Street Journal recently reported that Apple is planning to include an on-wrist blood pressure monitor in an upcoming version of the watch, both consumers and healthcare providers took notice.

  • How It Works – Citing internal company documents, the WSJ revealed that Apple’s tool tracks blood pressure changes using pulse arrival times, which measure how long it takes for blood to reach the wrist after a heart beat.
  • Limitations – This approach would show users how their blood pressure is trending (picture your wrist vibrating to tell you that your blood pressure is spiking during an argument), but would not provide a baseline measure of systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
  • Competition – Samsung is taking a different approach with the Galaxy Watch, which is already equipped with an optical sensor that can detect changes in blood pressure but requires a traditional cuff to calibrate and lacks FDA approval.
  • Launch Date – Although the Apple Watch Series 7 is set to debut later this month, blood pressure tracking isn’t expected before 2022, due in part to the engineering challenge of making the feature compact enough to fit in an already-crowded watch.

The Takeaway

Rumors of new Apple Watch features circulate every year before the product’s refresh, but the latest leaks provide more insight than most into Apple’s strategy for measuring blood pressure.

Pulse arrival time tracking highlights the Apple Watch’s potential and limitations in healthcare, but with hypertension afflicting ~100m Americans, the feature has the chance to make a significant impact in the lives of patients.

Apple Takes a Step Back From Healthcare

According to a new report from Business Insider, Apple is scaling back its internal HealthHabit app that let employees track their fitness, talk to clinicians, and manage hypertension. 

HealthHabit was one of Apple’s largest projects resulting from a partnership with AC Wellness, a primary care provider for employers and families. Unnamed sources at Apple stated that HealthHabit was intended for a consumer launch if successful internally, which… it apparently wasn’t.

Although the project was the focus of more than 50 employees, it struggled with user engagement, a problem all too familiar to those working on digital health products.

  • The Strategy – Apple’s healthcare ambitions are apparent in its products, with the company incorporating a medical-grade EKG in the Apple Watch and data-sharing for clinical trials through the iPhone Health app. HealthHabit’s roadmap likely resembled that of Amazon Care, which began as an employee-only primary care app before expanding nationwide earlier this year.
  • The Trend – Apple’s news follows just days after Alphabet reported that it was dismantling Google Health and reorganizing its healthcare projects to be closer to their team-specific specialties (e.g. Health-AI moves within AI group). Sometimes taking a step back is the best way to move forward, and Apple’s recent moves are far from the end of its healthcare strategy. 

The healthcare history books are filled with would-be disruptors who seemed to have everything they needed (excellent teams, funding, strong industry connections), but few if any have had the bottomless warchest of capital and talent commanded by Apple.

While the moat around healthcare is incredibly wide (entrenched tech/vendors, complex datasets, demanding users), the same could be said about the smartphone market circa 2008.

Despite this step back, if any industry needs a disruptor, it’s healthcare – and if any consumer brand is going to pull it off, it’s Apple.

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-- The Digital Health Wire team