Apple Pumps ECG App for Heart Month, in Hot Pursuit of Digital Health Adoption

Jack Murtha
FEBRUARY 01, 2019

Images have been altered. Courtesy of Apple.

February is Heart Month, and that’s good news for Apple. The tech giant recently released the Apple Watch 4, whose built-in ECG reader and digital health focus has earned the product plenty of press. So, to promote heart health and the new Apple Watch this month, the company plans to hold celebrity-driven fitness events and a digital health Activity Challenge.

The move further drives home Apple’s belief that a feature such as an ECG reader will not only interest consumers but actively sell Apple Watches. The company’s digital health bet is an interesting one given the usage drop-off rates that mobile health (mHealth) apps tend to suffer. But then again, the Apple Watch ECG app doubles down on digital health, bringing a U.S. Food and Drug Administration-cleared tool to a user’s wrist, where it performs a potentially life-saving service while requiring almost no legwork from the consumer.

>> Peril & Promise of the Apple Watch 4 ECG: A Guide for Docs & Users

But Apple’s digital health goals don’t end with the ECG reader — and it’s possible that the technology could serve as a sort of gateway drug for the company’s existing digital health programs.

During Heart Month, Apple plans to welcome Jeanette Jenkins, a celebrity fitness trainer, and American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown to stores in several major U.S. cities. Apple leaders — including health vice president Sumbul Desai, M.D., and fitness tech senior director Jay Blahnik — will also be on hand. “Heart Health with Apple” will feature a discussion, and then Jenkins will lead Apple Watch-wearing participants on a walk around the neighborhood.

On the digital side, consumers may partake in a heart-focused Apple Watch Activity Challenge designed to get participants to exercise. If they succeed, they’ll earn a badge and Messages stickers.

“We hope this Activity Challenge and these conversations about heart health will motivate more customers to make regular physical activity a part of their lives,” Blahnik said in a statement.

And that’s the hope of all consumer-facing digital health companies. If people aren’t trying to exercise or eat well, they won’t see a need for a fitness tracker or a dieting app. Many functions of wearables and mHealth apps are the digital forms of voluntary muscles.

But like the involuntary heart muscle, the Apple Watch ECG reader beats on even when users aren’t thinking about it. (Of course, Apple Watch owners may choose whether to download the optional app.)

So, here’s where it gets interesting and a bit speculative: As the Apple Watch scans for signs of atrial fibrillation and heart health, users might take notice. They might begin to care more about their health and even change their behavior — how they eat and exercise. And it’s quite possible that they’ll use Apple’s other digital health tools, conveniently placed on their wrist, to help chase down new goals.

“Cardiovascular disease takes many forms, and some are fully preventable through lifestyle changes like increased physical activity and better nutrition,” Desai said in a statement. “It’s always great to see patients make those positive changes, especially with the help of Apple Watch.”

And that’s the bet: If people have an ever-open window into such a vital organ, they might just pursue digital health in a way we haven’t seen before.

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