Apple claims that its Apple Watch can detect atrial fibrillation (AF) and appropriately notify the wearer when it suspects AF.
This claim comes with many caveats on their website:
Apparently it needs to record 5 instances of irregular heart beat characteristic of atrial fibrillation over at least 65 minutes before making the notification.
This feature utilizes the watch’s optical heart sensors, is available in Apple Watch Series 1 or later and has nothing to do with the Apple Watch 4 ECG recording capability which I described in detail in my prior post.
Failure To Detect AF
A patient of mine with known persistent AF informed me yesterday that she had gone into AF and remained in it for nearly 3 hours with heart rates over 100 beats per minute and had received no notification. She confirmed the atrial fibrillation with both AW4 recordings and AliveCor Kardia recordings while she was in it.
The watch faithfully recorded sustained heart rates up to 140 BPM but never alerted her of this even though the rate was consistently over her high heart rate trigger of 100 BPM.
The patient had set up the watch appropriately to receive notifications of an irregular rhythm.
Reviewing her tracings from both the AW4 and the Kardia this was easily diagnosed AF with a rapid ventricular response.
What does Apple tell us about the accuracy of the Apple Watch AF notification algorithm? All we know is the unpublished , non peer-reviewed data they themselves collected and presented to the FDA.
From this link on their website Apple says:
In a study of 226 participants aged 22 years or older who had received an AFib notification while wearing Apple Watch and subsequently wore an electrocardiogram (ECG) patch for approximately 1 week, 41.6% (94/226) had AFib detected by ECG patch. During concurrent wear of Apple Watch and an ECG patch, 57/226 participants received an AFib notification. Of those, 78.9% (45/57) showed concordant AFib on the ECG patch and 98.2 % (56/57) showed AFib and other clinically relevant arrhythmias. These results demonstrate that, while in the majority of cases the notification will accurately represent the presence of AFib, in some instances, a notification may indicate the presence of an arrhythmia other than AFib. No serious device adverse effects were observed
This tells us that about 80% of notifications are likely to be Afib whereas 20% will not be Afib. It is unclear what the “other clinically relevant arrhythmias” might be. If I had to guess I would suspect PVCS or PACS which are usually benign.
If 20% of the estimated 10 million Apple Watch wearers are getting false positive notifications of afib that means 2 million calls to doctor or visits to ERs that are not justified. This could be a huge waste of resources.
Thus the specificity of the AF notification is 80%. The other important parameter is the sensivitiy. Of the cases of AF that last >65 minutes how many are detected by the app?
Apple doesn’t seem to have any data on that but this obvious case of rapid AF lasting for 3 hours does not give me much confidence in their AF detection algorithms.
They do have a lot of CYA statements indicating you should not rely on this for detection of AF:
It is not intended to provide a notification on every episode of irregular rhythm suggestive of AFib and the absence of a notification is not intended to indicate no disease process is present; rather the feature is intended to opportunistically surface a notification of possible AFib when sufficient data are available for analysis. These data are only captured when the user is still. Along with the user’s risk factors, the feature can be used to supplement the decision for AFib screening. The feature is not intended to replace traditional methods of diagnosis or treatment.
My patient took her iPhone and Apple Watch into her local Apple store to find out why her AF was not detected. She was told by an Apple employee that the Watch does not detect AF but will only notify her if her heart rate is extremely low or high. I had asked her to record what they told her about the problem.
As I’ve written previously (see here) the Apple Watch comes with excessive hype and minimal proof of its accuracy. I’m sure we are going to hear lots of stories about AF being detected by the Watch but we need some published, peer-reviewed data and we need to be very circumspect before embracing it as a reliable AF monitor.