Apple’s New Watch Measures Your Blood Oxygen – Here’s What You Should Know

October 15, 2020 - 7 minutes read

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If you’re in the market for a smartwatch, you will notice that the newest feature across Fitbit and Apple devices is the blood oxygen saturation measurement. This metric helps your doctor get a confirmation that your heart and lungs are working at full and normal capacity. The pulse oximetry measurement is a timely addition to smartwatches since the coronavirus affects the lungs’ ability to work efficiently.

It has come to light that the lungs sustain permanent damage after the body has overcome the coronavirus, and a patient’s smartwatch can keep doctors up-to-date without requiring the patient to travel to numerous check-up appointments. Both medical tech developers display their pulse ox readings differently: Fitbit encourages their users to download a new watch face and shows a small graph in the sleep tracking part of the app, while Apple offers a manual way to check your blood oxygen levels, as well as showing a day-long graph in the Health app.

The Usefulness of Blood Oxygen Readings

Medical providers are cautiously optimistic about the new feature. Cathy A. Goldstein is a sleep physician at the University of Michigan’s Medicine Sleep Clinic, and she has researched the data that the Apple Watch collects on blood oxygen levels. The “continuous recording of data can be really interesting to see trends,” she says. This type of measurement, with some degree of accuracy, could help patients figure out if they have any health conditions they were unaware of, like sleep apnea. Most patients who have sleep apnea don’t know they have it, despite the disease affecting millions of Americans.

For Ethan Weiss, a cardiologist at the University of California San Francisco, measuring blood oxygen every day could overwhelm users and cause them to become overly stressed about their health. He’s concerned that patients might become upset and take unnecessary tests because of their pulse ox readings. According to Dr. Weiss, the feature could be both positive and negative because “it could keep people out of doctors’ offices and at home and give them reassurance, but it could also create a lot of anxiety.”

As smartwatch manufacturers add more metrics to their devices, it’s important for us, as users, to be acutely aware of how we can and can’t use the new features. For example, the Apple Watch’s EKG feature helped many people uncover their heart’s health and any abnormalities, but doctors warned that patients shouldn’t jump to conclusions, self-diagnose, or overly stress out from the watch’s EKG readings. If you were really concerned, they asserted, you should do a test with a doctor supervising the scanning and reading of the results before placing any weight on the watch’s results.

What Is Blood Oxygen?

Blood oxygen is measured by calculating the percent of oxygen-saturated hemoglobin molecules in the blood. Healthy patients will have readings in the mid- to high 90s. When a patient has a sleep disorder, respiratory infection, or lung disease, however, levels can range from the 60s to the low 90s, says Dr. Goldstein. She says that the readings from the Apple Watch should be shared with your primary care physician, who has a holistic picture of your health and wellness, as well as knowledge about benchmarks surrounding your age range and pre-existing conditions.

It’s also imperative that smartwatch users have a framework for thinking about the data. If something concerning happens, always check with your doctor for medical advice and diagnosis. Your doctor will help you decide whether there’s something to truly worry about. According to Dr. Goldstein, if you have symptoms like a cough or fever, don’t be tricked by a normal pulse ox reading; consult with your doctor and get a pulse ox reading in their office too.

Dr. Weiss says that blood oxygen measurements may be more useful for patients who already have known health problems. For example, if a patient with a history of heart problems saw their watch recorded low oxygen levels during their last exercise session, their doctor should figure out an action plan and, if necessary, modify the current treatment plan. These measurements could also be used to determine if a sick patient should go to the hospital, especially if they’ve tested positive for coronavirus and have oxygen levels lower than the mid-90s.

The Doctor’s Advice

Ultimately, it’s important that we decide how we will view the measurements and how much weight we will give to the accuracy of the device. Apple and Fitbit won’t tell you what to do about the measurements, just like stepping on the scale won’t magically give you a diet plan. You and your doctor must work together to monitor and verify the information, especially if it’s important to your overall health and wellness.

Dr. Goldstein says that if the data makes you overwhelmed and anxious, you should just disable the feature for some peace of mind. In the end, if you don’t care about your blood oxygen levels, you might want to buy an older Apple Watch and save some money, as the next newest version is basically the same as the newest one. It just lacks the ability to read pulse ox measurements.

Do you have the newest Apple Watch or a Fitbit device that measures your blood oxygen levels? Does it give you anxiety, and do you find yourself checking it often? Let us know in the comments below!

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