Ambitious Apple Watch stroke prevention study aims to minimize use of expensive blood thinners

Millions of people with an irregular heartbeat are prescribed expensive blood thinners, which prevent strokes, but also increase the risk of bleeding. A new study will investigate whether the Apple Watch can be used as part of a strategy to minimize the use of those medications when they’re not needed.

Apple Watch sends a notification if an irregular heart rhythm such as AFib, is identified.
Apple Watch sends a notification if an irregular heart rhythm such as AFib, is identified.

Mario Aguilar for Stat:

The seven-year study, expected to launch next spring, will compare strokes, bleeding, and health care cost outcomes between people who are given the standard course of blood thinners and an experimental group that will be directed to take medication only after an Apple Watch detects prolonged atrial fibrillation.

The study, which has secured $37 million in funding from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, aims to enroll 5,400 participants. The American Heart Association, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, and the University of California, San Francisco, are also partners on the study, which will focus on a relatively low-risk population of people who don’t have a history of stroke, congestive heart failure, or other conditions.

If the experimental arm of the study can prevent strokes as well as the standard of care and reduce instances of bleeding, it would be a major advance for cardiac care. It would also be a coup for Apple, which for years has been developing — and aggressively marketing — features that detect irregular heart rhythms in individuals but has yet to show they can directly impact care and improve outcomes.

Apple will donate devices to the project and is assisting in the development of the study application. As part of that work, the company is helping researchers build a custom algorithm for the study, which will check the heart rhythm of participants much more frequently than the algorithm available to the general public. Upon detecting atrial fibrillation that lasts several hours, patients will be directed by the software to take blood thinners until the highest risk of stroke has passed, rather than being left on the drugs indefinitely.

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