ECG-tech. EKG-tech. Heart-tech. Cardio-tech… all words which we have seen and heard around the new Apple Watch 4 thanks to its use of tech which will read the wearer’s heart rhythms in a revolutionary way.  

However, few people know much about ECGs, especially outside a medical setting – what are they, how the technology works or how it might be applied more widely across the health landscape. 

B-Secur has been developing ‘heart-tech’ for 15 years. It is now the leading heart-tech company in Britain and works with companies like Cypress Semiconductor and Analog Devices.  

It is also the company behind HeartKey, the technology that uses ECG biometric algorithms for authentication, identification and a range of health measures – meaning they are well placed to explain the role ECG could play in the future.  

What is ECG?

ECG stands for electrocardiogram. It is a direct test that measures the electrical activity and rhythm of your heart.

Just like fingerprints and irises, everyones cardiac rhythm is utterly unique, which means that your ECG can identify that you are who you say you are. However, because your heartbeat is never endingly dynamic and says so much about how you are, it can go way beyond ‘just’ identification (which is really where other biometric authentication devices end). 

Until recently, ECG readings could only be taken in clinical settings and required twelve electrodes placed across the body.  As Apple has now shown, sophisticated and accurate ECG readings can now be taken via one body placement.

Health application

Seeing this technology delivered much more widely in a health setting is now almost certain as other wearable and health brands as well as the medical community, wake up to its potential.

Gyms & Sport

Having a healthy heart is important. If you have a well performing and efficient heart, you will be in a good position to avoid all sorts of health issues and be able to perform well in whatever kind of athletic endeavours you enjoy, from Ironman triathlons through to gardening. It is one of the reasons we work out or take part in sport.

For those interested in getting or staying fit, understanding your heart is key.  It will help you understand when you are pushing yourself enough, or not enough, indeed one of the US’s most successful gym chains is called Orange Theory Fitness – based on a coloured heart rate chart, they recognise a great work out will see you in the ‘orange zone’ for as long as possible – not in the red zone (you are pushing yourself too hard) and not in the yellow zone (not enough).

So, the metric which is more important than the amount of weights lifted, sets and reps, distance run, body fat percentages, weight gained or lost is what is going on in your heart.  

Of course, wearables from Garmin, Fitbit and a host of other manufacturers have been able to tell you your beats per minute for a while now, and its useful information.

But where ECG/EKG tech goes a step further is it moves trackers from ‘fitness’ to ‘medical’ with wearers getting the same level of information professional medics are used to seeing in terms of accuracy. It also turns the device from ‘helpful’ into genuinely intelligent supervisor, keeping an eye out for weaknesses and inconsistencies and alerting accordingly.

Medical heart help

Coronary heart disease is the UK’s number one killer: 160,000 die from heart and circulatory diseases, 73,000 die from coronary heart disease and 42,000 died prematurely from cardiovascular disease according to HEART UK. Helping to reduce these numbers with improved cardiovascular disease management and prevention could save the NHS tens, even hundreds of millions of pounds.

When it comes to cardio disease management and prevention, patients need to commit to heart healthy physical activity, diet, medication and self monitoring, activities which traditionally go largely unmeasured….. wearable ECG tech instantly overcomes this, allowing continuous health monitoring for both the patient and his team of cardio-professionals.

Most notably, this can impact on atrial fibrillation (1), an issue which can go undetected and can be difficult to manage. Short term monitoring and occasional visits provide an unhelpfully limited amount of data which can result in serious complications.  However, use of ECG in wearable devices gives medical teams the ability to monitor on an ongoing basis, helping to prevent strokes, manage symptoms and reduce hospitalisations.

In fact, so effective can this technology be that inconsistencies in heart beat rhythm can actually alert medical teams to likely catastrophic situations before they strike.

Head and heart

But measuring and monitoring heart performance in order to treat and prevent heart-specific issues is not where ECG technology ends in a medical sense.

For instance, heart rate variability (HRV), the variability in the timings of beats, has been shown to have possible relations to both dementia (2) and depression (3).

The establishment of this link could revolutionise the identification, prevention and treatment of both diseases, helping millions of people and can now be done via non invasive wearable technology.

Beyond fitness & wellness

With ECG metrics for wellness constantly developing we will see the technology slip evermore into our healthy lives, but also into other areas – like our cars.

The applications are easy to imagine; a door handle which recognises your heart beat upon touch and unlocks the car instantly, but refusing to do so for your friendly local car thief; a steering wheel which recognises your heart through your grip and which reads your signs, notifying you or acting autonomously when it senses you nodding off while driving; an in car entertainment system which automatically adjusts to your Spotify playlists when you get in and re-adjusts when your teenage daughter borrows your car.