Apple Watch's fetal monitoring shows promise, but raises privacy concerns

Dr Cameron Powell discusses AirStrip during an Apple media event September 9, 2015. (Reuters)
Dr Cameron Powell discusses AirStrip during an Apple media event September 9, 2015. (Reuters)

Despite Apple's big hardware announcements last week, perhaps the most interesting and innovative display came in the form of an informative four minute presentation which could change the lives of pregnant women everywhere.

By now, we all know about the new iPad Pro, the upcoming iPhone 6s and the new iteration of Apple TV. What really stood out, however, was a short demo of the Apple Watch and its integration with the Airstrip app and the Sense4Baby monitor and how these three pieces could change the landscape of fetal monitoring at home. If you haven't seen that part of the presentation, you can check out the YouTube video below:

In theory, those in high-risk pregnancy situations could use the Apple Watch along with the Sense4Baby monitor to transmit non-stress test results and other vital readings directly to their family physician, obstetrician or gynecologist from the comfort of their own home. Not only does this save a tremendous amount of travel time but it also allows for instantaneous communication between practitioner and patient.

"There are many high risk pregnancies that could use this technology to reassure patients and doctors that baby is alive and well. This will decrease traveling and time spent in [the] doctor's office," Dr. Daniel Roshan, assistant professor at the NYU School of Medicine, told Yahoo Canada in an email exchange.

As with all new technology, however, there are always valid concerns. Dr. James Betoni, high-risk maternal fetal medicine doctor from Boise, Idaho shares just one possible scenario:

"My biggest concern would be identifying a fetus in danger with a non-reassuring fetal heart rate or ominous tracing that would require an emergency C-section. Then what? Hopefully, if the pregnancy is at a major risk for something like this, then home monitoring would not be used. Unless someone at the patient's home can do a C-section, there would likely be a poor outcome," said via email.

He also raises a few other questions regarding privacy and if expecting mothers should actually put themselves through even more stress over analyzing the test results.

"My overall opinion of home monitoring really leads to more questions than answers. There are multiple reasons for monitoring [but] is [it] for maternal reasons or fetal reasons? Also, who will be receiving the information and can something be done about the information transmitted? ... I hope this helps and, like with anything new, only time will tell," he said.

According to the Apple presser, the Airstrip program has already been used to monitor 3.5 million pregnant women in the hospital. With the introduction of the new Apple Watch operating system set for September 16, it's only natural to expect this number to rise. No word yet on the total cost to get started, but it would be hard to argue it wouldn't be worth the convenience and the peace of mind knowing your child can be monitored by your doctor from the comfort of your home.

In addition to how much patients may have to spend on the new hardware, another pressing issue could be if hospitals are even willing to implement these new technologies. If they are reluctant, can the readings still prove useful?

"With new apps, fetal heart rate monitoring is easier and faster. ... I am sure the new technologies will change the way we practice medicine but, at the same time, we have to be prepared for new challenges," Dr. Roshan said.