Apple steps up its focus on health with new blood oxygen sensor, population health initiative in Singapore

Along with rolling out new health tracking features, Apple also announced a partnership with Singapore for a personalized program to encourage healthy activity and behaviors using the Apple Watch. (Apple)

As wearables companies continue to add new health and wellness capabilities, Apple showed off its latest smartwatch Tuesday with an ability to measure users' blood oxygen.

The new Apple Watch Series 6 expands the health capabilities of previous Apple Watch models with a new feature that measures the oxygen saturation of the user’s blood so they can better understand their overall fitness and wellness, the company said as it unveiled the watch during Apple's fall product event.

Oxygen saturation, or SpO2, represents the percentage of oxygen being carried by red blood cells from the lungs to the rest of the body and indicates how well this oxygenated blood is being delivered.

“Apple Watch Series 6 completely redefines what a watch can do,” said Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer, in a statement. “With powerful new features, including a Blood Oxygen sensor and app, Apple Watch becomes even more indispensable by providing further insight into overall well-being."

The blood oxygen app measurements are only designed for general fitness and wellness purposes are not intended for medical uses such as self-diagnosis or consultation with a doctor, the tech giant said.

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Companies outside of healthcare, like Apple, see that migrating care away from intensive settings is the future, according to Michael Abrams, co-founder and managing partner at global healthcare consulting firm Numerof & Associates.

"They, and other tech companies, are currently working to seize the business opportunity that that reality presents, and if hospitals and health systems want to find future success, it’s time they follow suit," he said.

Considering how many Americans have had to shelter in place and pay close attention to their own health and wellness this year, it’s no surprise that Apple, Google and most recently Amazon have added more health features to their wearable devices, Abrams said.

"Apple’s new blood oxygen monitoring is particularly timely, and more broadly, another example of tech both hearing and answering consumers’ call for a better way to manage care from the comfort of home," Abrams said.

Apple also has unveiled a new fitness app designed for its smartwatches, and CVS Health has signed on to offer it to select commercial Aetna and Caremark members.

The company plans to partner with the government of Singapore on a national health initiaitve using Apple Watch.

The initiative, called LumiHealth, is a personalized program to encourage healthy activity and behaviors using fitness tracking and apps. Created in collaboration with a team of physicians and public health experts, LumiHealth features challenges designed to help users sleep better, move more, eat well and live more mindfully. LumiHealth also reminds users to go for health screenings and immunizations.

“Singapore has one of the world’s leading healthcare systems, and we are thrilled to be partnering with them to incorporate Apple Watch and LumiHealth into their holistic approach to well-being,” Williams said.

Apple will sponsor three studies to validate the feature and its benefits and explore how blood oxygen levels can be used in future health applications. The company will work with researchers at Anthem and the University of California, Irvine to examine how longitudinal measurements of blood oxygen and other physiological signals can help manage and control asthma.

RELATED: Competing with Apple and Fitbit, Amazon launches health wearable that tracks activity, body fat, emotions

Apple also plans to work with the Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research and the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre at the University Health Network to better understand how blood oxygen measurements and other Apple Watch metrics can help with management of heart failure.

Meanwhile, the Seattle Flu Study at the Brotman Baty Institute for Precision Medicine and faculty from the University of Washington School of Medicine will examine how signals from apps on Apple Watch, such as heart rate and blood oxygen, could serve as early signs of respiratory conditions like influenza and COVID-19.

The battle to lead the consumer fitness tracker market is heating up as Amazon recently launched a fitness tracker, called Halo, that tracks activity, body fat and emotions. Companies like Amazon, Apple and Fitbit are all focusing on pivoting their wearables from just fun accessories to health devices. 

Fitbit just announced it has gained medical device clearances in the U.S. and Europe for its smartwatch electrocardiogram app to track users' heart rhythms for signs of atrial fibrillation.

The company's latest device, Fitbit Sense, tracks heart rate variability, breathing rate and blood-oxygen saturation, or SpO2. Fitbit Sense also will have an on-wrist skin temperature sensor that can help detect potential signs of illness.