The new Apple Watch, unveiled yesterday in Cupertino, California, possesses a new and startling capability: It can monitor the electrical pulses that drive the heart’s activity, and proactively alert users who it has determined might have a condition called atrial fibrillation. The FDA has voiced its approval, Apple said, and the new product goes on sale this fall.
Reaction was predictably positive: Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of heart arrhythmia in the United States, and the most common cause of embolic stroke. The president of the American Heart Association graced the stage at the company’s product announcement. People tweeted about Apple saving lives. “It won’t catch every instance of [atrial fibrillation], but we believe this is going to help a lot of people who didn’t otherwise know they had an issue,” said Apple COO Jeff Williams onstage of the feature, which is opt-in.
It seems like the most obvious thing in the world: Generating more data about how your heart is working must be good, right? But in many cases—prostate cancer being the most famous example—checking (and monitoring and treating) people for a disease does not make their health outcome better. Screening can lead to overdiagnosis and overtreatment, and all medical interventions come with their own set of risks, especially in a health-care system as expensive and inefficient as ours. At the very least, it can provoke unneeded panic. Counterintuitively (at least to those in Silicon Valley), sometimes it is better not to know.