Apple wearable developments: mHealth just got interesting

The news of Apple’s patent application for ‘earbuds with biometric sensing’ have caused quite a stir. We look at the potential for evolving health tracking technology and consider how this could impact mHealth.

Step aside, Apple Watch. Experts are predicting that Apple’s wireless in-ear headphones AirPods will outsell their wrist wearables by 2020.

Ear fitted wearables or ‘hearables’ have been trending for some time, but never more so than when a trio of patent and trademark applications surfaced last month from Apple, bidding for rights on next level Airpod designs with biometric sensors.

Putting aside the exciting, albeit perhaps daunting, signs of technology’s continued takeover, what does this mean for the pharmaceutical industry? And how could next-level health tracking technology impact mHealth?

Biometric functions in a small package

The illustrations submitted as part of the application imply that the design will be aesthetically similar to a hearing aid, sitting comfortably just inside the ear. which got us thinking.

But just how much can earpad technology track when it comes to our health? Let’s start by taking a closer look at the three applications filed by Apple, each one outlining a specific biometric function.

One of these proposes an integrated photoplethysmogram (PPG) sensor at one end of the earbud. This is the same technology used in the Apple Watch to monitor heart rate. It works by shining a light onto the skin and measuring changes in reflectivity, which can then be used to characterise blood flow. Senior Editor at Apple Insider Mikey Campbell explains:

“Though a conventional earbud design does not lend itself to PPG measurements, Apple proposes positioning the sensor toward the speaker opening to make contact with with the tragus of the ear. A fleshy prominence located in front of the ear canal, the tragus is an ideal location for blood measurements.”

Apple’s ambitious plans don’t stop there. They also want to incorporate a VO2 sensor, GSR (galvanic skin response) sensor, an electrocardiogram (EKG) sensor, an impedance cardiography (ICG) sensor and a thermometers to take measurements of both the user’s body temperature and ‘ambient air’.

The idea is that all of these sensors will work in concert with one another to perform a number of tasks. This includes monitoring orientation to establish the location of the device, and fine tuning the health monitoring abilities to measure:

• Heart rate

• Blood oxygen levels

• Stress levels

• Temperature (user and surroundings)

• Electrical activity of the heart

How could this impact mHealth in clinical trials?

Wider use of mobile technologies in clinical trials was proven to reduce costs by 12% in a 2014 study, which accounted for up to $6.1 million.

Mobile app integration for clinical trials has previously been found to be particularly successful for clinical trial recruitment, retention and communication. Furthermore, a mobile diabetes intervention study of 163 patients found that providing participants with personalised feedback via a mobile coaching app led to substantially lowered glycated haemoglobin levels.

Propel those success stories into the context of Apple’s ambitious plans for biometric earbuds, and there is huge potential for improving efficiency and reducing the costs of clinical trials, not to mention the impact it could have on clinical advancement.

With next-level AirPods tracking patients’ heart rate, blood oxygen levels, electrical activity of the heart, stress levels and internal and external temperature factors, more accurate and continual studies would be enabled. These would offer more compelling results, while costing less in terms of time and resources.

Recruitment and retention is also likely to be impacted as the unobtrusive and fashionable AirPods would have less of an impact on participants’ lives, as well as reaffirming results with customised and continual feedback.

When can we start using biometric AirPods?

It’s going to be a while yet. As Apple’s second wearable platform, they are unlikely to follow the same momentum of development as the iPhone and iPad.

However, considering the market shift towards wearable products and growing buzz for ‘hearables’, Apple could soon make good on its patent applications and build out its wireless headphone line to include health tracking.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy our recent article on the future of robotics in healthcare. Learn about our integrated technologies and what they can do for your trial.