Apple Continues to Go All in on Health

The rumors were true — blood oxygen (SpO2) tracking will be enabled on the Apple Watch Series 6. The sensor uses infrared lights to measure your blood oxygen in seconds, and can take measurements while you sleep.

Amanda Pedersen

September 15, 2020

3 Min Read
Apple Continues to Go All in on Health

As speculated, Apple introduced the Apple Watch Series 6 on Tuesday, which includes a blood oxygen feature designed to offer users further insight into their overall wellness. The biggest takeaway from the event, as it relates to medtech at least, is that the Cupertino, CA-based company is no longer just dipping its toes into the medtech waters — Apple is all in on healthcare.

“Apple Watch Series 6 completely redefines what a watch can do,” said Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer. “With powerful new features, including a blood oxygen sensor and app, Apple Watch becomes even more indispensable by providing further insight into overall well-being.”

Apple Watch Series 6 is designed to expand the health capabilities of previous Apple Watch models with a new feature that conveniently measures the oxygen saturation of the user’s blood, so they can better understand their overall fitness and wellness. Oxygen saturation, or SpO2, represents the percentage of oxygen being carried by red blood cells from the lungs to the rest of the body, and indicates how well this oxygenated blood is being delivered throughout the body.

To compensate for natural variations in the skin and improve accuracy, the sensor employs four clusters of green, red, and infrared LEDs, along with the four photodiodes on the back crystal of Apple Watch, to measure light reflected back from blood. Apple Watch then uses an advanced custom algorithm built into the blood oxygen app, which is designed to measure blood oxygen between 70% and 100%. On-demand measurements can be taken while the user is still, and periodic background measurements occur when they are inactive, including during sleep. All data will be visible in the health app, and the user will be able to track trends over time to see how their blood oxygen level changes.

The ability to track blood oxygen level changes is especially helpful in the age of COVID-19, as the virus can sometiems cause silent hypoxia, which is when a patient's blood oxygen saturation levels are found to be lower than expected without the patient exhibiting breathlessness.

The reveal led to a lot of excitement Tuesday, even for my dog, Addison.

New Apple Watch clinical research

Apple said it is working with researchers to conduct three health studies that include using Apple Watch to explore how blood oxygen levels can be used in future health applications. This year, Apple will collaborate with the University of California, Irvine, and Anthem to examine how longitudinal measurements of blood oxygen and other physiological signals can help manage and control asthma.

Separately, Apple plans to work with investigators at the Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research and the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre at the University Health Network, one of the largest health research organizations in North America, to better understand how blood oxygen measurements and other Apple Watch metrics can help with management of heart failure. Finally, investigators with the Seattle Flu Study at the Brotman Baty Institute for Precision Medicine and faculty from the University of Washington School of Medicine will seek to learn how signals from apps on Apple Watch, such as heart rate and blood oxygen, could serve as early signs of respiratory conditions like influenza and COVID-19.

Implications of the Apple Watch Blood Oxygen app for Masimo

The release of a blood oxygen app on the Apple Watch does create some new competition for Masimo, Mike Matson, a medtech analyst at Needham & Co., said he does not expect it to have a material impact on the sales of most of Masimo's products because the Apple Watch is a consumer product and "potentially less accurate than medical-grade products offered by [Masimo]."

Matson also noted in a report on Tuesday that Masimo filed a against Apple for patent infringement and trade theft in January. While it could take years for that lawsuit to be resolved, the latest Apple Watch reveal could have a potential upside for the medtech company down the road in the form of royalties, should the case be resolved in Masimo's favor.

About the Author(s)

Amanda Pedersen

Amanda Pedersen is a veteran journalist and award-winning columnist with a passion for helping medical device professionals connect the dots between the medtech news of the day and the bigger picture. She has been covering the medtech industry since 2006.

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