Deals, Devices, Tech

With J&J deal to assess value of Apple watch in atrial fibrillation, tech giant fortifies its foray into healthcare

Last week Apple CEO Tim Cook said that in the future, when we all look back at his company, its greatest contribution to mankind will have been about health. And now in a significant step towards Cook’s vision, the pharma major Johnson & Johnson $JNJ has agreed to work with the Cupertino-based tech giant to test the diagnosis and outcomes of AFib patients in a clinical trial.

The latest iteration of Apple Watch drew gasps of intrigue when it was revealed the device contained a simple electrocardiogram able to detect signs of atrial fibrillation (AFib) — a common heart condition that raises the risk of stroke and is typically seen in the elderly. While the FDA signed off on the sensor — Apple has been careful to underscore that the watch can’t diagnose anything or replace a doctor.

Apple has already sunk its talons into the health insurance industry — with its health team setting up partnerships with Aetna and United Healthcare to subsidize the cost of its watch, and is reportedly in talks with private Medicare plans to bring it to at-risk seniors.

In 2017, the company tied up with Stanford University to evaluate previous editions of the watch in a large-scale heart study, and last year Apple joined forces with medical device maker Zimmer Biomet in a bid to use the health data captured by the watch to determine why some patients recover faster from knee and hip replacements.

Paul Stoffels, J&J

The deal with J&J is another big step that solidifies Apple’s — and the larger tech sector’s — increasingly cozy relationship with the healthcare industry.

Details on the design and number of patients to be included in the multi-year study are not clear, but the companies said it will take place in the United States and enroll individuals over the age of 65. The goals of the trial include measuring the outcomes of a heart health engagement program with irregular rhythm notifications on the watch, and assessing the impact of a medication adherence program using a J&J app.

AFib is the most common form of heart arrhythmia that typically affects the elderly, and some people who have it don’t experience any symptoms, making its diagnosis tricky. Between 2.7–6.1 million Americans are afflicted with the condition, according to the CDC. As the US population ages, those numbers are set to rise.

“Too many people living with AFib are unaware of their risk, and earlier detection, diagnosis and treatment of AFib could significantly improve outcomes. Based on the insights generated through this research program, we may be able to develop new ways to detect other health conditions earlier in the future that also exhibit measurable physiological symptoms,” J&J chief scientific officer Paul Stoffels said in a statement.

Trials like this one can solidify the position of the Apple Watch as a category-defining technology. All it needs now are the data to prove it.

Tim Cook, chief executive officer of Apple, speaks during an event at the Steve Jobs Theater in Cupertino Getty Images

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Research Scientist - Immunology
Recursion Pharmaceuticals Salt Lake City, UT
Director of Operations
Atlas Venture Cambridge, MA

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