Apple Watch helps alert the person to life-threatening blood clots

We hear many stories from Apple Watch users who say the device alerted them to potentially life-threatening health problems. A new story out of Ohio, however, is one of the first of its kind.

Ken Counihan says a combination of breathing rate and blood oxygen data from his Apple Watch alerted him to a potentially fatal condition last fall…

Apple Watch’s respiration rate and blood oxygen data

As reported by a local news affiliate News5 in Cleveland, Ohio, Counihan is an avid Apple Watch user, relying on the device for exercise tracking, sleep tracking, and more. Last October, however, he noticed that his breathing rate was elevated. Your respiratory rate is the number of breaths you take per minute, and an elevated number can signal a number of potential health problems.

The Apple Watch is able to monitor your breathing rate while you sleep. Because Counihan wears his Apple Watch for sleep tracking, the Health app was able to collect his breathing rate and look for trends and changes in those trends. The Health app offers a “Health Trends” feature that can notify you when there is a change in a specific metric.

In his case, Counihan decided to go to outpatient care, where he had an X-ray done and was finally sent home with bronchitis medicine.

“I got an alert in October that my breathing was elevated. So basically you have a certain number of breaths per minute, basically said I went from 14 to 17 or 18,” Counihan said. “My wife made me call my son and he suggested I go to the outpatient care, have it looked at, which I did. And they just did an X-ray. And they gave me some medicine for bronchitis at the time.”

Later that day, however, Counihan received another alert on his Apple Watch: his blood oxygen level had dropped. “My blood oxygen — which is usually in the mid-90s, which is supposed to be, like, 95 and up — started getting out in the mid-80s,” he said. At his family’s request, Counihan then reluctantly went to the emergency room.

Using the numbers he provided from the Apple Watch and additional vitals collected in the ER, doctors ordered a CT scan. This CT scan is what revealed the underlying cause of Counihan’s symptoms. “They took me back to the CT scan and found I had blood clots throughout my lungs,” he said.

Counihan was then prescribed blood thinners and is “feeling much better,” and he credits the Apple Watch with saving his life. He says doctors told him that if he had gone to bed instead of going to the ER that night, he “may not have woken up the next morning.”

“What the doctor said as a follow-up, if I didn’t go in, he said that 60% of people who have this condition at that stage—if I went to bed, I might not have woken up the next morning,” Counihan said.

“I have three kids and two grandkids, hopefully more grandkids in the next couple of years, I just want to keep enjoying that,” Counihan said. “I have friends who have gone out and bought an Apple Watch as a result. I just had dinner with a friend the other night…and he’s looking to get an Apple Watch now too. It saved my life. It’s amazing.”

Dr. Lucy Franjic, an emergency physician at Cleveland Clinic, echoed Counihan’s praise for the Apple Watch:

“We do have patients who come in and they notice these trends of ‘my heart rate is higher than usual’ or ‘it’s showing me that…I have an abnormal rhythm,'” Franjic said. “And so having that information can just help the doctor try to diagnose what the underlying problem is and help prevent any life-threatening emergencies from happening.”

Here’s an interesting look at how two pieces of data collected by the Apple Watch can be used together to alert someone to larger health issues. The Apple Watch itself, of course, cannot alert someone to a possible blood clot, but it can provide the necessary insight to prompt someone to seek further medical care.

This also marks one of the first — if not the first — times we’ve seen the Apple Watch’s blood oxygen feature used for something like this. Apple itself says the blood oxygen feature is “only designed for general fitness and wellness purposes,” but the data can clearly still be broadly useful as a reference point for other health issues.

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