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Newly granted Apple patent shows ways to turn an iPhone into a health sensor

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The USPTO granted Apple a new patent last week that details ways the iPhone itself could be used as a health sensor to detect “blood pressure index, blood hydration, body fat content, oxygen saturation, pulse rate, perfusion index, electrocardiogram, photoplethysmogram, and/or any other such health data.” This data could be gleaned from the front-facing camera, the ambient light sensor, the proximity sensor, or a special electrode built into the device.

Patents are notoriously dubious sources of information about a company’s future plans. At many companies the practice is to seek patents early to keep the company’s options open and mazimize the chance that they’ll beat competitors to the filing — whether or not there are actual plans to develop the offering. Additionally, patents can take a long time between filing and the patent being granted (this one was filed in 2015) and companies’ plans can change in the meantime.

All that said, this patent from Cupertino is one more piece of the increasingly complicated puzzle that is Apple’s plan for health devices, so it’s worth considering the claims.

One aspect of the filing, the idea of using the iPhone’s camera to detect pulse, is not a new idea by any means. Azumio’s Instant Heart Rate app, which launched in 2011, is one of the most famous applications of the technology. But we found six others back in 2013. Using light to detect some of the other biomarkers listed in the patent, like blood pressure and blood oxygenation, is not unheard of either — in fact standard of care fingertip pulse oximeters already use a light sensor.

The idea of using an electrode in the device to turn the iPhone into an ECG is also pretty well established, currently the domain of companies like AliveCor and Cardiac Designs. Apple could build the functionality into the phone itself. In fact, emails between Apple and the FDA uncovered by MobiHealthNews last fall included discussions of “two possible (and related) products in the cardiac space” and we speculated at the time that an AliveCor-like accessory could be one of those products. 

“Nothing would be better for AliveCor than Apple introducing an ECG device but I am very skeptical,” AliveCor inventor Dr. David Albert told MobiHealthNews in an email at the time. “The market is small in Apple terms. Most iPhone customers don’t need an ECG. However, were they to introduce something, I suspect AliveCor would be acquired in a nanosecond. Alphabet, Microsoft, Fitbit, Medtronic, GE, Philips, Samsung, Huawei, Xiaomi, etc. would need a solution fast and getting into the highly regulated medical field would not be fast for any of the nonmedical companies and the medical companies take years to develop products.”

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Jonah Comstock
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