How the media mis-reported the Apple heart study

Half positive results, half false positives, plenty of snark.

What did cardiologists learn from 400,000 Apple Watches? Depends whose report you read.

Jack Morse, Mashable: Oh look, the Apple Watch might actually be good for somethingApple touted the findings in a press release, noting the watch “feature’s ability to give a user important health information without creating unnecessary burden to their doctor’s schedule.”

Manas Mishra, Reuters: Apple Watch detects irregular heart beat in large U.S. study. The Apple Watch was able to detect irregular heart pulse rates that could signal the need for further monitoring for a serious heart rhythm problem, according to data from a large study funded by Apple Inc., demonstrating a potential future role for wearable consumer technology in healthcare…

Peter Loftus, Wall Street Journal: Apple Watch Has Mixed Results in Big Heart Study ($). A massive new study found that the pulse sensor in Apple’s watch helped detect a heart-rhythm disorder in a small number of users but may have caused false alarms for others. The study’s mixed findings hinted at the potential of “wearable” gadgets to detect asymptomatic health conditions in people that might otherwise go unnoticed. But doctors said the potential false positives and other aspects of the study show that people should be cautious about relying on the technology as diagnostic tools…

My take: As a recovering science editor (Time, 1995-2007) I have to say that none of these reporters covered themselves in glory.

Mashable’s headline was a cheap shot, which may be why it was reeled in and recast.

Reuters’ report was too credulous; the gold standard for a medical story is a randomized double-blind study published in a peer-reviewed journal, preferably JAMA (Journal of the American Medial Association) or the New England Journal of Medicine. A press release from the company that funded the research doesn’t cut it.

To his credit, the WSJ’s Peter Loftus actually attended the conference where the research was presented. But he seems to have got up on the wrong side of the bed that day. He puts his best negative quote (“The wearable sensors, I think we have a ways to go”) in paragraph 3 and the main positive result (84% confirmed afibs) in paragraph 19. Geesh.

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  1. Adam Foster said:
    I have had three cardioversions (electric shocks) and two catherter ablations in the last three years. My series 3 watch gave me alarms when I was having abnormal high heart rate while no activity and my series 4 watch did the same, sometimes many times a day, and thru the EKG feature advised me of Afib on a number of occasions!
    Simply amazing and I very much look forward to Apple’s future medical forays!
    Thank you, Apple.

    March 17, 2019
  2. Fred Stein said:
    My neighbor died of a heart attack at age 70 a couple years ago. He was slender with good musculature. His life could have been saved. He was retired high school teacher, still teaching pro bono. He didn’t just teach. He saved lives by connecting with kids whose home life or history would have doomed them compete failure in life.

    March 17, 2019
  3. Jonathan Mackenzie said:
    This study pre-dated the Apple Watch series 4 ECG, so the current device is better suited to discover Afib than anything reflected in these results.

    The news here for Apple fans is not in the results per se. It is in the evidence that Apple is taking medical applications seriously. Just another data point on the path of progress.

    It’s obvious that potential medical benefits from wearable sensors are vast, and the utility of these devices should only improve in the future. Companies well positioned in this growing field should make good investment candidates. So the Apple news for me is simply increased confidence in their story of revenue growth through medical applications.

    March 17, 2019
  4. By Monday, when the Wall Street Journal’s piece appeared in the print edition, this story had received a ton more press. I just counted 24 headlines on Techmeme, all but the Journal reporting the results as positive.

    March 18, 2019

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