Technology has helped cardiologist Eric Topol save lives. While on an airplane several years ago, a flight attendant asked if there was a doctor on board—a man was suffering from chest pain at 30,000 feet. Topol was able to obtain an electrocardiogram from the man by using a heart activity–reading gadget that attached to his smartphone, made by the medical device company AliveCor.
“It turned out to be a big anterior heart attack I could see right on my smartphone,” says Topol, director and founder of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in San Diego. “I had to tell the folks to land the plane. He wound up doing pretty well.”
Although Topol used his smartphone to conduct the ECG, it wasn’t an algorithm that led to the man’s diagnosis; it was Topol’s years of knowledge as a cardiologist. The technology could complete the test, but without Topol to interpret the results, it would have been useless. “It was me, the human algorithm,” he says.
“It’s vital that this time we get it right, because we’ll likely never have another opportunity like this, and we’ve got to seize it.”
But in late 2017 — just six years after the in-flight medical emergency — the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved an algorithm developed by AliveCor for the Apple Watch that no human can match. Thanks to the algorithm embedded in the watch’s band, the watch can continuously monitor your heartbeat for signs of atrial fibrillation, a common disorder that carries a high risk of stroke. It learns your heart rate at rest and when you’re active; if it detects an apparent abnormality, the watch alerts you to put your thumb on the watchband to record an ECG. (Apple has since developed a similar algorithm that is a feature in the most recent version of its watch, Apple Watch 4.)
The technological transition of the ECG from a test that requires a doctor’s interpretation to one that can be done on a wearer’s wrist is just one example Topol cites in his new…