Apple announces three new Apple Watch health studies with big-name partners

Amidst the unveiling of its newest consumer smartphones, tablets and smartwatches, the tech company said it will begin enrolling consumers into its hearing, cardiovascular and women's health studies later this year through an upcoming app.
By Dave Muoio
03:37 pm
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Apple today announced that it will be launching three new Apple Watch health studies in partnership with major healthcare and academic organizations, including the World Health Organization, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and others.

These upcoming studies will capture data regarding participants’ sound exposure, menstrual cycles, heart rate and physical activity. Each will be open to U.S. Apple Watch owners, who will be able to enroll themselves through a new Apple Research App the company said will be available for download later this year.

“It’s truly inspiring to see the difference that the Apple Watch is making,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said on stage today during a reveal event. “In addition to helping individuals, Apple Watch is having an impact on another important area that affects all of us, and that’s health research. We’re excited about how Apple Watch can make a tremendous difference in this area.”

First up, the Apple Women’s Health Study is a long-term look at menstrual cycle patterns, using the Watch’s recently announced period tracking feature. Conducted alongside the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and Harvard, the company wants these data to bolster screening and risk assessment practices for gynecological conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) or osteoporosis.

“Women make up half of the world’s population, yet even today there has been limited investment in studying their unique health needs,” Michelle A. Williams, dean of the faculty at the Harvard T.H. Chan School, said in a statement. “This study, unprecedented in scope, will greatly advance our understanding of the biological and social determinants of women’s health, and lead to better health outcomes.”

The Apple Hearing Study will similarly be conducted alongside University of Michigan researchers to monitor the sound levels wearers encounter during their daily routines, and how that exposure could be affecting their hearing health. According to Apple, the data from this study will be shared with WHO.

“With over a billion young people who could be at risk of hearing loss due to unsafe listening, WHO is addressing this challenge through raising awareness and setting new standards for safe listening,” Dr. Shelly Chadha, technical officer of prevention of deafness and hearing loss at WHO, said in a statement. “The knowledge gained through this study will contribute to future public health action in this field.”

Finally, the Apple Heart and Movement Study will follow the path of Apple’s previous cardiovascular investigations by charting how heart rate and activity are related to hospitalizations, serious falls, general heart health and quality of life. This study will also be a collaboration with Brigham and Women’s Hospital as well as the American Heart Association.

“We are excited to be working with all the study participants and with Apple to identify the features of complex human physiology that lead to different outcomes in wellness or chronic disease, and to use this information to empower individuals to maximize their own health,” Calum MacRae, vice chair of Scientific Innovation for the Department of Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said in a statement.

Apple stressed during its presentation that it will be unable to access any identifiable user data collected as part of the studies.

“We’re really excited about the impact the Research app can have,” Cook said. “It gives all of us an amazing opportunity to participate in health research that could lead to innovations to improve our health and the health of future generations. So I hope you check it out.”

News of the studies was accompanied by reveals of the company’s newest devices, amongst which was the Watch Series 5.

In addition to a new always-on display and health tracking software revealed over the summer, the company’s wearable touts a new international emergency calling feature that will emergency services in case a hard fall and inactivity is detected. The call is made automatically, and occurs regardless of the wearer’s country of purchase or whether they had activated a cellular plan.

WHY IT MATTERS

The unveiling of these new trials comes half a year after Apple officially uncapped the results of its Apple Heart Study, another large-scale effort open to Apple Watch owners. That trial, conducted with Stanford Medicine, enrolled nearly 420,000 participants and suggested that similar device-driven approaches to population health could generate extensive datasets.

What’s more, the Apple Watch’s growing list of health monitoring features is a vital component of its wider digital health strategy. And while some practitioners have lauded the devices’ potential to increase patient health engagement with their personal health and behaviors (often with some encouragement from Apple itself), others have worried about false positives, excessive calls to the doctor and — for atrial fibrillation in particular — unnecessary treatment that could actually worsen outcomes.

THE LARGER TREND

Today’s announcements represent new bridges between Apple and healthcare, but the company has been making new friends across the industry for some time now.

Just last month, Apple co-presented data alongside Eli Lilly and Company that suggests sensors from consumer-grade devices like iPhones, Apple Watches, iPads and Beddit sleep monitors could capture enough damage to spot mild cognitive impairment. Earlier in the year, it announced a program with Johnson & Johnson targeting Watch-based senior health monitoring.