Of the many new experiences you might have during a high-risk pregnancy, one of the least fun is a fetal monitoring test called a Non-Stress Test, or NST. It really should be called a High-Stress Test because of the anguish it puts parents through. Apple just made it a little bit better.
An NST is the best way for doctors to examine the health of a fetus in the final trimester. Here’s how it works: You’re essentially chained to a zillion monitors for an hour or so while doctors determine if your baby’s heartbeat and movement are normal. This usually has to be done in the hospital and it sometimes has to be done several times in the last few weeks of pregnancy. Due to my high blood pressure, I was admitted into Labor and Delivery six times to do NSTs before my daughter was actually born. (On the bright side, all the nurses knew me when I finally came back to give birth.)
But one of the biggest problems with this whole process is that even with all those sensors, doctors still have a hard time differentiating the mum’s heartbeat from the baby’s, which means they’re moving the sensors around, listening, moving them around, listening. Again, this is all incredibly scary, when you’re already worried about the health of your baby.
Airstrip, an integrated fetal monitoring app announced by Apple at today’s event, can comfortably gather all the information for an NST, even at home, and transmit all its data wirelessly to your Apple Watch. And thanks to the excellent heartbeat tracker in the Apple Watch, supposedly it can tell mum’s and baby’s heartbeat apart. More importantly, it can send all this information to your doctor. But this is not just a UX innovation: Apple’s also partnered with an important medical device to work with it. The streamlined Sense4Baby monitor, which Airstrip acquired in April, looks like a comfy battery-powered band to replace a complicated array of wands, sensors, and stickers.
The Airstrip system also solves the problem of needing to check the baby’s health during labor—high-risk pregnancies especially need to be constantly monitored. Airstrip can apparently do all of this, including tracking the time and strength of contractions. Anyone who’s tried to squeeze a baby out of their vagina knows that the last thing you want is to be tethered to a fetal monitoring machine. You want to MOVE. And if you could track all of this data—the length and strength of contractions, with updates on the baby’s health—easily on your tiny Apple Watch, you could confidently wander around laboring at home, only coming to the hospital or birthing center when it was time to deliver.
Let’s hope this is financially feasible for hospitals, doctors, and midwives to use—and it’s not just women who can afford an Apple Watch. While I don’t think there’s too much value in sitting around at home checking your unborn baby’s heartbeat unless your doctor needs that information (in fact, many doctors will recommend you not become obsessed with tracking your baby’s heartbeat at home), I can see this being immensely helpful in developing countries with unreliable or nonexistent power. It will almost certainly help deliver healthier babies. And of course, hopefully you don’t need an Apple Watch to view the data—let’s hope it will track just as easily on a phone or tablet.
As an owner of a uterus who has lamented the lack of women presenters onstage at Apple events, and was pretty peeved that Apple’s HealthKit originally didn’t include female-friendly features like a period tracker (they’ve since added it), this is actually one of the best things a tech company has ever done for women’s health. I’m almost looking forward to the Non-Stress Test in my next pregnancy.