But this result wasn’t calculated from any of the numbers above. It specifically refers to the subset of patients who had an irregular pulse notification while wearing their confirmatory patch. That’s a very small minority of participants. Of the 86 who got a notification while wearing a patch, 72 had confirmed evidence of atrial fibrillation. (Dividing 72 by 86 yields 0.84, which is how you get a positive predictive value of 84 percent.)
Positive predictive values, although useful when talking to patients, are not always a good measure of a test’s effectiveness. When you test a device on a group where everyone has a disease, for instance, all positive results are correct. A flipped coin would have a positive predictive power of 100 percent in such a population, even though it’s a terrible test.
Other test characteristics like sensitivity (if you have a disease, how likely the test is to be positive) and specificity (if you don’t have a disease, how likely the test is to be negative) are more effective in evaluating the overall quality of a test. This study, unfortunately, was not designed to determine those characteristics.
Other methods to screen and diagnose people with atrial fibrillation are available. A systematic review of mobile health devices for atrial fibrillation found 22 studies between 2014 and 2019 that reported on many of them. Some had sensitivities and specificities pretty close to the ideal of 100. None are close to as large as this study, though.
Even blood pressure monitors, ubiquitous in physician’s offices, can screen for atrial fibrillation. A systematic review of them found that they had sensitivities greater than 85 percent and specificities greater than 90 percent.
Here’s the thing, though. Experts aren’t even sure if screening is a good idea to begin with.
After all, if we felt strongly enough about detecting asymptomatic people who might have atrial fibrillation, we could screen everyone with electrocardiograms. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has considered doing this among adults 65 and older, who are at higher risk for stroke. The group found that the evidence was insufficient to recommend doing so, because it’s not clear that this level of screening is better than current care. Just taking a pulse as part of a checkup is a pretty good screen all by itself.
There is also a concern that electrocardiogram screening could turn up a lot of false positives, leading to misdiagnosis and unnecessary further testing, which incurs its own risks. Remember that even with the Apple Watch, most of the people who got notifications did not have atrial fibrillation.