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Matters Of The Heart: Stanford Docs, Apple Team Up For Heart Study Using Smart Watch

PALO ALTO (CBS SF) — Technology and medicine are revolutionizing how our health is monitored. In the first of its kind study, Stanford University's School of Medicine teamed up with Apple and 418,000 willing participants to learn more about people's hearts and detecting an irregular heartbeat.

In the not-so-distant past, clinical study participants would have had to go to a facility multiple times, check in periodically with a study coordinator, and interrupt their day-to-day lives.

Dr. Lloyd Minor, Dean of Medicine at Stanford, says not anymore.

"This study, the Apple Heart Study, was entirely a virtual study," he said. "It was done entirely through interactions enabled by media, digital media."

Across the country, 418,000 people who already owned an Apple Watch Series 1 or later, downloaded an app, digitally signed a consent form and allowed an app to constantly run in the background. They would only be alerted by the app if their watch detected an irregular heartbeat.

Marco Perez, a co-investigator in the Apple Watch heart study, helped oversee a team of 50 researchers.

"One of the exciting things was that, we were covering new ground," he said. "The challenge was, we didn't have a lot to go on, so there weren't a lot of prior studies that we could refer to help design our study. So a lot of this, we really were just sort of groundbreaking."

Part of what researchers sought to find out was the accuracy of this technology.

"It was 0.5%, or about 2,000 participants, who had an irregular pulse detected," he said.

That small number also cast aside their fears of possible false notifications being sent out.

If someone's pulse was found to be irregular, they were then prompted to take out their phone and connect live with a study doctor. Stanford would then mail them a clinical grade monitor for further investigation.

Of those people, 34% turned out to have atrial fibrillation. And from first detection of an irregular pulse to diagnosis, it only took two weeks.

"There are a lot of people out there who have an irregular heartbeat like atrial fibrillation and have no idea that they have it," Perez said. "They're completely asymptomatic. So these technologies are able to detect that, even when the person doesn't know if they have it."

This is just the beginning of what researchers believe is a radical transformation of how medical studies are done. Those at Stanford Medicine believe each industry is helping the other in figuring out what best suits our medical needs now and in the future.

"Increasingly, more and more clinical research is going to be done in that way," Minor said. "And our ability then to get information from larger numbers of people will be expanded because we don't have all these barriers to participation in the studies."

Stanford researchers say that patient privacy still remains a top priority as these studies become more commonplace. Only the information that was absolutely pertinent to the study was shared, and each participant signed a consent form.

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