SEP 01, 2021 9:00 AM PDT

Keep 6 Inches Away: Smartphones and Watches Can Interfere With Implanted Medical Devices

WRITTEN BY: Ryan Vingum

Recent guidance by the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommended that people with implanted medical devices should avoid keeping their smartphone and other types of smart devices too close to the location of their implanted devices. Six inches, to be precise.

A recent study published in Heart Rhythm confirmed this recommendation, providing additional evidence about how smart devices can interfere with the function of implanted devices. The study also reinforced potential precautions individuals with implanted devices should take.

The previous FDA guidance highlighted that many types of electronic devices, such as smartphones and smart watches, contain strong magnets that can interfere with the regular functioning of implanted devices, such as pacemakers. Many implantable devices have a feature that can be switched on and off (called magnet mode) when it is deemed necessary for medical treatment or procedures, such as MRIs. Strong magnets could activate this feature unexpectedly, affecting the device’s ability to function. For example, a study conducted earlier this year found that the iPhone 12, which uses a strong magnet to help the phone connect with a wireless charger, could interfere with a device’s magnet mode. The study specifically found that the magnet could interfere with the functioning of an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD). 

The study conducted in Heart Rhythm was performed by researchers affiliated with the FDA and the Center for Devices and Radiological Health and confirmed previous research findings and FDA guidance. The team tested different models of the iPhone 12 and Apple Watch 6, measuring the magnetic output produced by each. Their findings highlighted that smart devices could produce up magnetic fields approaching 10G, which could be enough to mess with implanted device function if the two are in close enough proximity to each other. 

However, the research team noted that while patient risk from magnets in electronic devices is technically low, there is still a need for caution.

“The number of consumer electronics with strong magnets is expected to increase over time. Therefore, we recommend people with implanted medical devices talk with their healthcare providers to ensure they understand this potential risk and the proper techniques for safe use. The FDA will continue to monitor the effects of consumer electronics on the safe operation of medical devices," noted Seth Seidman, the study's lead author.

Sources: Science Daily; Heart Rhythm; US Food and Drug Administration 

About the Author
  • Science writer and editor, with a focus on simplifying complex information about health, medicine, technology, and clinical drug development for a general audience.
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