News Feature | August 16, 2016

Is Apple Pushing Further Into Healthcare With New Patent?

By Suzanne Hodsden

Apple has filed a patent for a wearable device capable of collecting electrocardiographic (EKG) signals from various points on the body, technology that could be developed into wrist bands, pendants, brooches, or rings. The patent lends credibility to rumors surfacing last week that Apple was working on a stand-alone health-centric device separate from the Apple watch.

According to the Economic Daily News (via Apple Insider), Apple has been working with Taiwanese technology developers and manufacturers for two years developing a “killer new product” that would measure heart rate, blood sugar, and other health-related data. Suppliers such as Foxconn, TPK, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., and Zhen Ding Technology are said to be involved in the project.

In a patent filed Thursday, Apple describes a wearable device that monitors a person’s EKG measurements, as well as an accompanying enrollment process in which the device would be calibrated and adjusted to suit an individual’s body, ensuring accuracy. Two separate electrodes could be placed on different parts of the body, and their position would be determined (by the device) using the earlier calibrations. This process, claims the patent, ensures the accuracy of EKG readings, regardless of the position of the wearable device.

“Medical practitioners often have to take care as to the placement of the positive electrode and the negative electrode to ensure accurate processing of an electrocardiographic measurement,” wrote Apple in the patent. Authors added that ensuring consistent placement of the wearable device would not be feasible, so the device’s enrollment process and analytical capabilities could account for variations in placement.

Though the timing of patent coincides with the rumors from Taiwan, Fortune reports that this is not definitive proof the device is truly in development. Tech giants like Apple, argued Fortune, file patents for all kinds of technology that never ends up seeing the light of day.

Over the past few years, Apple has filed patents for emergency alert software that could be incorporated into the Apple watch, as well as a “smart ring” fitted with multiple biometric sensors and capable of performing like an Apple watch, but on a smaller scale.

Apple CEO Tim Cook told The Telegraph in 2015 that Apple would not be pursuing FDA approval for the Apple Watch, even though it is currently being used conjunction with multiple clinical studies using ResearchKit apps.

“We don’t want to put the watch through the FDA process,” said Cook in the interview. “I wouldn’t mind putting something adjacent to the watch through it, but not the watch because it would hold us back from innovating too much. The cycles are too long.” Cook was not explicit about what the adjacent product might be — an app or something else.

Other companies in the health-tracking business are not as leery of the FDA. Fitbit CEO James Park told Bloomberg earlier this year that he embraces the opportunity to work closely with the regulatory agency as Fitbit expands into medical-grade technology.

Philips recently launched a digital health suite — including a watch — that already is listed with the FDA and is aimed at tackling chronic disease prevention in the $41 billion digital health market.