Like previous Apple Watches, the upcoming Apple Watch 6 should come with a variety of health-tracking features that can save lives. But in the timely battle against COVID-19, an anticipated addition for Apple's upcoming wearable could be a game-changing defense.
A pulse oximeter is designed to detect silent hypoxia, a life-threatening condition that has determined the fate of many of the 2 million coronavirus patients around the world. In an op-ed for The New York Times, emergency doctor Richard Leviathan says widespread pulse oximetry "could provide an early warning system for the kinds of breathing problems associated with Covid pneumonia."
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Dr. Leviathan believes recognizing silent hypoxia in its earliest stages will keep more patients off of ventilator machines. In fact, the doctor, who traveled to New York City to volunteer his 30 years of experience in emergency medicine, says pulse oximetry saved the lives of at least two emergency physicians also working in the coronavirus hot spot.
Pulse oximetry requires the use of a special thermometer, which can be purchased over the counter at pharmacies. When placed on a fingertip for a few seconds, a pulse oximeter can read oxygen saturation and pulse rate. According to Dr. Leviathan, pulse oximeters are "extremely reliable" in identifying coronavirus warning signs like heightened heart rates and subtle oxygenation issues.
With such monitoring, Covid-19-related pneumonia or silent hypoxia can be recognized sooner. This could increase a patient's chances of avoiding ventilators, and help healthcare workers better form treatment plans for those who are ill.
So what does this have to do with Apple Watch 6?
In late March, we saw a beta version of Watch OS 7 that revealed the next Apple Watch would finally get blood oxygen tracking this year.
Blood oxygen monitoring, also known as SPO2 monitoring, measures the oxygen saturation level of your blood. A pulse oximeter would enable SPO2 monitoring in the Apple Watch 6, letting users know when their blood oxygen falls below a certain concentration.
Though SPO2 monitoring is spotted in Watch OS 7, it's unclear whether older Apple Watch series already have the necessary pulse oximetry hardware in place, or if the feature will be an Apple Watch 6 exclusive.
Either way, it wouldn't be the first wearable with SPO2 — Garmin added blood oxygenation sensors to the Vivosmart lineup. But as noted in our Garmin Vivosmart 4 review, the SPO2 monitor is designed for recognizing breathing difficulties while you sleep, which could be a symptom of sleep apnea.
So the Apple Watch 6 getting SPO2 monitoring doesn't mean we can expect it to end coronavirus fatalities, or necessarily let people know earlier on that they could be sick and should quarantine. But it could be a useful tool, should it debut with the new watch in the fall.