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What is Apple Watch ECG/EKG, how does it work and how do you set it up?

The Apple Watch didn’t have a huge focus on health when it first launched in 2014. It was more about fashion, notifications and apps on your wrist – offering a digital alternative to the analogue world that dominated before.

Fast forward to 2023 and the space Apple’s smartwatch occupies is vastly different. The Apple Watch Series 8 – like the Series 4, 5, 6 and Series 7 that have gone before it – is very much a health and wellbeing device with a number of features, including the ability to take an ECG and detect irregular rhythm.

Here we explain everything you need to know about the Apple Watch heart features, how they work, what they mean, and why you might want to use them.

Apple Watch Series 8 The Apple Watch Series 8 is an excellent smartwatch with a great design, heaps of sensors and plenty of features, including the ability to take an ECG.

What are the Apple Watch heart features?
ECG/EKG Irregular rhythm notification The ECG/EKG and irregular rhythm notification features were first announced in September 2018, with the ECG feature specific to the Apple Watch Series 4 at the time. As you might expect, it is also available on models since the Series 4, including the Watch Series 5, Watch Series 6. Watch Series 7, Watch Series 8 and the Watch Ultra. You won’t find the ECG feature on the first or second generation of the Watch SE though.

The ECG feature allows users to perform ECG tests from the comfort of their homes rather requiring a local GP or hospital to take a reading. For those not familiar with the term, an ECG – short for an electrocardiogram – is a way of measuring the timings and strength of electrical signals that make up your heartbeat. By reading an ECG, a doctor can see your heart’s rhythm and any irregularities, intervening if required.

The irregular rhythm notification feature meanwhile, checks heart rhythms in the background every two hours and sends a notification if an irregular heart rhythm is detected. It is available to all Apple Watch users with a Series 1 or later, and this includes the Watch SE and Watch SE (2nd generation).

How to get ECG on Apple Watch and which models have it
Apple Watch Series 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 or Ultra required for ECG The ECG and irregular rhythm notification features are available to Apple Watches running Watch OS 5.2 or later.

As mentioned, the irregular rhythm notification feature is available to all Apple Watch models from Series 1 and newer, including the Apple Watch SE models.

The ECG feature meanwhile, requires the electrical heart rate sensor within the Digital Crown, which is unique to the Series 4, Series 5, Series 6, Series 7, Series 8 and Watch Ultra models.

What do you need to take an ECG with Apple Watch?
ECG app Apple Watch Series 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 or Watch Ultra Supported country The ECG app is available in over 150 countries globally. Aside from the app though, you’ll also need the Apple Watch Series 4, Series 5, Series 6, Series 7, Series 8, Watch Ultra, an iPhone (iPhone 5 or above) and the ability to sit still while you do the test.

How to set up the Apple Watch ECG app
iOS 12.2 and WatchOS 5.2 or later Open Health app In order to setup the Apple Watch ECG app, you’ll need to make sure you are running iOS 12.2 or later on the iPhone connected to your Apple Watch and WatchOS 5.2 or later on your Apple Watch, after which you can access the ECG functionality in the Health app on your iPhone.

If you’re doing this for the first time, you should see a prompt asking you to set it up. If you don’t, go to the Health app > Tap on the Browse tab in the bottom right of your screen > Tap on Heart > Then tap on Electrocardiogram (ECG) > Setup the ECG app. The setup is incredibly easy and asks for some minimum details, such as age. That’s because performing an ECG under the age of 22 isn’t recommended.

Once set up, you can open the Apple Watch ECG app and begin taking an ECG.

How to take an ECG on the Apple Watch
Open ECG app on Apple Watch Series 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 or Ultra Hold index finger on Digital Crown Wait 30 seconds Once you’ve set up the app you can take an ECG whenever and wherever you want. The beauty of having the device on you all the time is that you don’t have to book an appointment with the doctor.

Simply open the ECG app on the Watch – it’s the icon with the image of a heart rate graph, rest your arm on something to reduce movement, and then hold your index finger (from the arm that doesn’t have the watch on it) on the Digital Crown. You don’t have to press the Digital Crown. It’s all about making a looped connection for the system to monitor what’s happening.

The test takes around 30 seconds to complete, and you’ll see a representation of your heart rate on the screen while you do it. When complete, the Apple Watch will give you an instant result, along with the ability to record any symptoms you were feeling at the time.

Meanwhile on your iPhone, you’ll get a notification with a link straight to the report so you can see further detail or share the results with your doctor.

What do the Apple Watch ECG results mean?
Once you’ve finished capturing your EGC reading, you’ll get one of four messages.

Sinus rhythm means everything is as expected. Atrial fibrillation means there is an irregular pattern detected. Low or high heart rate is the third potential result, while Inconclusive means the test can’t determine the end result.

Can you share your Health information with your doctor?
Of course. To do this, go into the Health App on your iPhone > Browse > Tap Heart > Electrocardiogram (ECG) > ECG result.

You can then export the details via a PDF to share with your doctor. You decide how that information is shared.

Apple doesn’t share that information with anyone else like a third-party insurance company, other apps, or even your own computer.

Is it as good as an ECG in a doctor’s office?
Nobody is saying the Apple Watch ECG is as good as or capable of replacing a hospital quality electrocardiograph machine, but that’s not the idea. A traditional hospital ECG is often referred to as a “12-lead” machine because it uses 10 different electrodes to provide information on 12 different areas of the heart. In contrast, the Apple Watch is akin to a single lead machine.

The documentation refers to the Apple Watch ECG not being a substitute for actual medical care at every opportunity. Support documents from Apple state that the “user is not intended to interpret or take clinical action based on the device output without consultation of a qualified healthcare professional.”

And furthermore, “the feature is not intended to replace traditional methods of diagnosis or treatment”.

To get the device cleared by the relevant regulatory bodies in the US and Europe, Apple had to provide details of a clinical test of around 600 people, half of whom had atrial fibrillation.

The ECG app was unable to read about 10 per cent of the subjects, but for the others, it was very accurate, according to Apple. The company said “it caught more than 98 percent of people with atrial fibrillation, and correctly told people that they didn’t have the condition 99.6 percent of the time.”

Apple also carried out another substantial test involving the accuracy of Apple Watch’s heart data – the Apple Heart Study with Stanford University, for example, monitored atrial fibrillation, but not the ECG functionality.

Should Apple give people the ability to do an ECG at home?
Apple has clearly been encouraged by Apple Watch’s various successes as a personal medical device. Indeed, it’s done a better job at this than any other device before it. The detection of high heart rates has been especially popular and there have been a few cases where the Apple Watch has probably saved lives because it has prompted people to seek medical help.

Ivor Benjamin, president of the American Heart Association was on stage with Apple when the company announced the feature in September 2018.

Benjamin said: “In my experience, people often report symptoms that are absent during their medical visits.”

He added: “[This] is game-changing, especially when evaluating atrial fibrillation – an irregular and rapid heart rate that can increase a person’s risk of stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications”.

In the UK, Professor Martin Cowie, professor of Cardiology at Imperial College London, based at Royal Brompton Hospital, and chair of the Digital Health Committee of the European Society of Cardiology, also sung the ECG feature’s capabilities when it arrived.

“Today, there are around 1.5 million people in the UK living with atrial fibrillation, the most common heart rhythm problem, but a third of these people may be unaware of this. An on-demand ECG and pulse check could be a powerful tool in our ongoing quest to manage heart health better across Europe. The opportunity for innovation to optimise patient care is huge and this is a great step forward.”

What is atrial fibrillation?
Atrial fibrillation (or Afib/AF) is where the upper chambers of the heart beat irregularly, increasing the risk of stroke and heart failure.

The irregular rhythm notification feature will check heart rhythms every two hours in the background and send a notification if an irregular heart rhythm is detected.

If an irregular heart rhythm is detected, the Apple Watch will do five further tests in quick succession to see if the outcome is still positive. If it is positive, those using an Apple Watch Series 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 or Watch Ultra device will be prompted to do an ECG reading. Those using an Apple Watch Series 1, 2, 3 or either Watch SE model will suggest you contact your local GP.

Which countries does Apple Watch ECG work in?
Rather than roll out the ECG feature to all Apple Watch users, Apple wanted it to only be available in regions “cleared” for a medical device.

Because of that, the ECG feature wasn’t initially available worldwide, though it’s pretty much there now.

Apple’s ECG feature is available in the US, UK, and over 150 other regions and countries globally. You can see the full list of supported countries here.

Apple Watch Series 8 The Apple Watch Series 8 is an excellent smartwatch with a great design, heaps of sensors and plenty of features, including the ability to take an ECG.

What can’t the Apple Watch heart features do?
The Apple Watch heart features do not detect a heart attack, blood clots, a stroke or other heart-related conditions including high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, high cholesterol or other forms of arrhythmia.

What are the risks?
There are a few caveats to the heart features on Apple Watch, not least that “the ECG app is not intended for use by people under 22 years old [or…] individuals previously diagnosed with AFib”. You also need to be still for the ECG to work – “these data are only captured when the user is still.”

Equally, “it is not intended to provide a notification on every episode of irregular rhythm suggestive of AFib and the absence of a notification is not intended to indicate no disease process is present”. It’s a guide, not a 99.9 percent accurate test.

That’s key, because some will feel completely assured by the ECG app and not seek appropriate care: “Over-reliance on device output leading to failure to seek treatment despite acute symptoms or discontinuing or modifying treatment for chronic heart condition”.

The FDA ruling also points out that “false positive resulting in additional unnecessary medical procedures” could be an issue with the device, resulting in people going for actual ECGs that don’t need to happen.


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