Apple Confuses Watch Buyers With Health Features, Experts Say

Don’t count on Series 6 for COVID-monitoring

Key Takeaways

  • The Apple Watch Series 6 is oriented towards health monitoring and includes the ability to monitor blood oxygen.
  • Experts say Watch users could be confused into thinking the gadget can detect coronavirus symptoms (it can’t).
  • The Series 6 joins a growing field of devices designed to track personal health at home.
Apple introducing the Apple Watch Series 6 blood oxygen app
Apple

Apple boasts that its new Watch Series 6 offers a host of health-tracking features, but experts warn that users could be confused into thinking the gadget can detect coronavirus symptoms. 

The Series 6 released last week adds the ability to track sleep and hand washing, and can monitor blood oxygen levels. Blood oxygen levels can be used to monitor the severity of some COVID-19 cases and an Apple vice president talked about coronavirus during the presentation of the new gadget. However, the Apple Watch’s blood oxygen sensor isn’t intended as a medical device. 

"Apple has to make it very clear that this is not any kind of diagnostic tool," Craig Konnoth, a health policy professor at the University of Colorado Law School, said in a phone interview. "I think that they definitely should take extra precautions, given the fact that they are releasing this at a very sensitive time during a pandemic where oxygen monitoring and other respiratory issues are an important part of the consideration that goes into the assessment of the disease." 

Healthier, Brighter, Faster, Better?

The Series 6 is faster and has a brighter display than last year’s 5 model, and it’s more focused on wellness. "The Future of Health is on your Wrist," claims Apple on its website. Adding to the Series 5’s heart monitoring features, the new watch adds a blood oxygen sensor.

The Series 6 joins a growing field of devices designed to track personal health at home. Fitbit’s fitness watches track blood oxygen levels, and a new watch face on the Fitbit is designed to make the process easier. Some Garmin smart watches also offer the ability to monitor blood oxygen.

The new Blood Oxygen sensor and app measuring the oxygen saturation of blood
Apple

Apple says the Series 6’s blood oxygen feature is meant to help users understand their fitness level. However, an Apple bigwig spoke about the new watch in connection with the coronavirus crisis. "Blood oxygen and pulse oximetry are terms that we’ve heard a lot about during the COVID pandemic," said Sumbul Ahmad Desai, Apple’s VP of health, during the company’s product announcements.

Blood oxygen levels are a way of measuring how well the lungs are working. A reading of 95 or above is considered normal range. The measurement can be used to detect if lung function is impaired by coronavirus, but the blood oxygen number is an imperfect tool for measuring COVID symptoms.

"Apple has to make it very clear that this is not any kind of diagnostic tool."

"I would say that the symptoms should drive your decision making, not the number," said Dr. Joseph C. Kvedar, a professor at Harvard Medical School and president of the American Telemedicine Association, in a phone interview. "If you're feeling short of breath, if you're getting any of those famous symptoms, whether it be loss of taste or sense of smell or fever, that’s when you should be concerned."

Colleagues in the office practicing alternative greeting to avoid handshakes during COVID-19 pandemic
martin-dm / Getty Images 

COVID-19 can only be diagnosed through a lab test. "It’s important to remember that not all changes in pulse oximetry are related to COVID-19," writes Dr. Denyse Lutchmansingh, a Yale Medicine pulmonologist. "Other lung-related issues, such as pneumonia and blood clots, can also result in low readings on pulse oximetry. Thus, persistently low readings should be discussed with a doctor."

Researchers are investigating the medical potential of the blood oxygen features on the Series 6. Scientists at the Seattle Flu Study at the Brotman Baty Institute for Precision Medicine, as well as faculty from the University of Washington School of Medicine, are studying "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," Apple says on its website.

'Wellness' Devices Avoid Regulations

Apple may be framing the Series 6 as a wellness device rather than a medical device to avoid falling under FDA guidelines, Kvedar said. The FDA only enforces regulations for medical devices, while those for 'wellness' fall into a grey area, he added.

"If there's evidence that this time last year Apple was developing this particular oxygen monitoring system that they just happened to release in the middle of COVID, then okay fine, I'd be less troubled," Kvedar said. "But if this was really a medical product and they are interested in calling it a wellness product to avoid FDA enforcement, then I'm a little more concerned."