The watch’s pulse meter could act as an early warning for COVID-19 infections, according to this article, if the FDA would give it the government’s blessing.
From James Copeland’s “Suffocating Progress” posted last week by City Journal:
Among its many features, the Apple Watch can take your pulse. It also contains hardware to measure your blood-oxygen levels, and it has been doing so since the watch was released—but the hardware is not operable by the watch’s wearer, who thus cannot obtain the results. Under current FDA regulation, the function is disabled..
This matters in the Covid pandemic. On April 20, emergency-room doctor Richard Levitan described in theNew York Times what he’d observed treating patients in Bellevue Hospital in New York. Levitan had seen many cases of “silent hypoxia,” unknown oxygen deprivation in which “patients without respiratory complaints had Covid pneumonia”—even those admitted to the hospital for non-Covid-related health concerns. By the time most patients made it to the hospital, they had “remarkably low oxygen saturations.” Levitan’s recommendation: “Widespread pulse oximetry screening [as] an early warning system.”
Pulse oximetry refers to the measuring of blood oxygenation noninvasively, by firing wavelengths of light—red and infrared—through the skin. Variations in absorption between the different wavelengths by arterial blood allow us to read oxygen saturation. That sounds high-tech, but it’s an old technology, first developed for earlobes in the 1930s; fingertip pulse oximeters were developed in Japan in the 1970s. The plethysmograph in the Apple Watch that measures pulse works essentially the same way.
Yet the Apple Watch currently on the market cannot make this feature available to the consumer. Relatively inexpensive pulse oximeters remain widely available—usually. Like other items, from toilet paper to surgical masks, they’re unlikely to be widely available in a pandemic, when everyone wants a device and public demand outpaces manufacturing and distribution capability. Delivery dates on Amazon are already backed up for weeks…
Some of Apple’s competitors have begun rolling out blood-oxygen monitor devices—such as Fitbit, which received FDA approval earlier this year. Samsung’s Galaxy phones possessed the capacity to read blood oxygen as well as pulse through its built-in Samsung Health app—until the most recent version, the S20, which suspended the function, likely due to regulatory and legal concerns. (I have an older version and have been using it to monitor my oxygen.) Apple itself has finally started to get FDA clearance for other heart-monitoring features, so approval for the blood-oxygen feature may be on the way, eventually.
My take: What are they waiting for?