While most Apple Watch owners will realise that their smartwatch has the tech onboard to keep an eye on your ticker, question marks still remain over its ability to accurately detect heart rate activity. Apple itself admitted that having a tattoo can interfere with the readings and that getting the precise right fit is vital for reliable bpm (beats per minute) readings from your Watch.
But that's where the Kardia Band steps in, a medical grade heart monitoring Apple Watch strap that has just been launched in the UK and Europe by Silicon Valley health tech company AliveCor. The electrocardiogram (EKG) strap, which comes in 38mm and 42mm, is designed to pick up palpitations, shortness of breath and other reasons for concern which could increase the risk of a stroke.
Responsible for bringing this smart strap to life is AliveCor's CEO - and ex-Googler - Vic Gundotra, a man who's been on quite a journey. Before joining AliveCor in November 2015, Gundotra served as senior vice president of social at Google. But when he left in 2014, he thought he was done with his commercial career.
"I had been very lucky. I'd spent 15 years at Microsoft, then eight years at Google. People rarely get those kinds of opportunities with that kind of timing," he said. "While that offered me the chance to do something pretty extraordinary; I thought 'now there's a bunch of things I want to do, like spending time with my family and volunteer work', and I was very sincere in that."
It was after 18 months of pursuing interests outside tech that he came across AliveCor. This heart health company stood out to him for several reasons, but one in particular was related to something very important to him.
"What people don't know is that three weeks after I retired from Google, my Dad had a cardiac event, an episode of supra ventricular attack that almost lead to his death," he explained. "I personally rushed him to the hospital, which luckily is only a few minutes away from my house, and there the docs managed to save his life."
I knew AliveCor was a company I wanted to spend my time on
Gundotra was told by the doctors that if he'd got to his dad a minute or two later, he probably would have lost him. Since that day, Gundotra has had a heightened desire to understand heart disease, something he notes "kills more than all forms of cancer combined". This, and the fact that his father had previous suffered a heart attack when he was only 12, inspired his passion for keeping a healthy ticker and monitoring his cardiac health.
"When I came across AliveCor and met the founder and saw what they were doing, it touched me very, very deeply," he said. "Here's a company making a device that a consumer can purchase that could detect the most common arrhythmia that often leads to heart conditions. This arrhythmia, despite how common it is, goes largely undetected because people only go see the clinic and get one or two EKG's a year."
Heart on your wrist
Once Gundotra started investigating AliveCor, he discovered how impactful the firm's first product was, the Kardia Mobile - an EKG detector the size of a stick of gum - via reviews from users whose cardiac events, such as atrial fibrillation, had been missed by the doctors.
"I knew then that AliveCor was a company I wanted to spend my time on; to run a commercial company that could impact the world."
And it all comes down to the type of technology AliveCor uses in its band. The current Apple Watch heart rate setup relies on something called photoplethysmography. This is an optical heart rate sensor based technology that you similarly find on fitness wearables like the Fitbit Charge 2 or the Garmin Vivosmart HR+. It produces a reading by flashing lights against the skin to detect blood flow.
The £199 Kardia Band's EKG technology detects the electrical activity produced by a heartbeat, a method that is still considered the most accurate way to record heart rate activity. It's used by the medical industry and found inside heart rate monitor chest straps, so it's a big deal that AliveCor is able to bring the tech to the wrist.
All of the data collected by the band is then sent to the AliveCor companion app, which can be synced with Apple Health and could even make it easier to share the information with your doctor if you think that's appropriate.
Why the Apple Watch?
Gundotra explains that AliveCor chose the Apple Watch as it's the most broadly adapted platform and that being a small company, AliveCor had to choose which platforms to invest in very carefully:
"The Apple Watch had the most consumer momentum and Apple has been partnering with us to support us through that process, which is great. We were able to build the band. It was then getting to the regulatory bodies which was pretty challenging. We are still waiting FDA approval in the US, so it's not available in the States yet. But we were pretty excited to get through the regulatory bodies in Europe and make it available.
"The response has been incredible; we've had our highest sales days in Europe ever since the announcement of the band. So clearly it's touched a nerve there for people who have arrhythmia."
The future of healthcare
Gundotra believes that wearable tech in general shouldn't be labeled as simply an extension to smartphones. He also doesn't just see a future for Kardia Band in the healthcare industry, be believes the tech has a potential to change the way patients are cared for and diagnosed in years to come.
"People can argue about how valuable wearables are today. Maybe you use your smartwatch to tell you a notification so you don't have to open up your phone. We can talk about how significant that is, and the long term value of that. But in healthcare, I think there's a tremendous opportunity to do a lot more," he said.
"The wearable in the context of healthcare allows for monitoring at a sampling rate that's a lot more than, say one or two EKGs a year. Say, when you're not feeling well and you can just touch your watch and get an electrocardiogram, that's a big change in the value. You're not just getting a notification about a friend posting a photo - it's the kind of data that might be able to save your life."
The AliveCor boss thinks we will see people using wearables after any kind of operation or chronic care, such as those with a heart condition or diabetes. In fact, he cannot imagine a future in which wearables won't change the management of care of patients.
"It's clear that's the journey we are on, it's only a matter of when. The amount of lives we could impact with early detection, in warning you of an acute situation. It's obvious the impact they'll have, and it's going to be huge."
But what's holding back the progression of wearables right now? Gundotra seems to think it simply comes down to their price point. While many wearables available today, such as the Apple Watch and arguably this health strap accessory, are premium tier, he has no doubt that over the next couple of years the prices will come down and will boast never before seen capabilities, broadly available to everyone.
"Wearables are not at the price point where all countries across the world can have them with hundreds or millions of consumers," Gundotra told us. "They will get there, in the same way that the first computers were crazy expensive and it was hard to believe that everyone would have one in their home, the same thing is going to happen with wearables."
The health tech to watch