iPhone 12 magnets could deactivate implantable cardiac devices

Henry Ford cardiologists warned that the magnetic array in the new iPhones can potentially interfere with pacemakers and implantable defibrillators.
By Kat Jercich
03:11 PM
An iPhone 12 pro in an Apple store

Cardiologists from Henry Ford Health System have found that the magnets in an iPhone 12 can potentially interfere with devices such as pacemakers and implantable defibrillators.  

Because the devices have switches that respond to an external magnet, the doctors found that they can be triggered by the magnetic array in new iPhones, which help align the phone on a wireless charger and increase wireless charging speeds.   

"A convenient place to carry your phone is in your front pocket," said Dr. Joshua C. Greenberg, an electrophysiology fellow at Henry Ford Hospital, during a press briefing Thursday about the findings. "What our findings reinforce is the importance of how this new technology can affect devices.

"In our case, putting a phone in your pocket with a … defibrillator can potentially stop it from delivering therapies," he added.  

WHY IT MATTERS  

More than 300,000 people in the United States undergo surgery each year to implant pacemakers or defibrillators, which use electricity to keep the heart beating or shock it back to a normal rhythm.  

A magnet can be used to turn devices off or deliver impulses that cause the heart to beat out of sync, which can lead to potentially lethal conditions.  

"Obviously, we can’t perform surgery every time we need to control one of these devices, which is why they are engineered to allow us to use strong magnets over the chest to control their function," said Henry Ford cardiologist Dr. Gurjit Singh in a press statement. "So, we began to wonder if the magnet in the iPhone 12 would affect the safe operation of these devices."  

The cardiologists found that bringing an iPhone 12 Pro close to the chest of a patient with a Medtronic-brand implantable defibrillator deactivated the medical device.   

"We saw on the external defibrillator programmer that the functions of the device were suspended and remained suspended. When we took the phone away from the patient’s chest, the defibrillator immediately returned to its normal function," said Singh.

Singh and Greenberg, along with their colleague Dr. Mahmoud R. Altawil, wrote a letter to the editor published in HeartRhythm this past month warning of the potential interference.  

"We hereby report an important public health issue concerning the newer-generation iPhone 12, which potentially can inhibit lifesaving therapy in a patient, particularly when the phone is carried in an upper chest pocket," wrote the doctors.  

Following the publication of the letter, Apple published a statement noting that the magnets and electromagnetic fields in iPhones and MagSafe accessories might interfere with medical devices.  

"Though all iPhone 12 models contain more magnets than prior iPhone models, they're not expected to pose a greater risk of magnetic interference to medical devices than prior iPhone models," read the statement.  

"To avoid any potential interactions with these devices, keep your iPhone and MagSafe accessories a safe distance away from your device (more than six inches/15 cm apart or more than 12 inches/30 cm apart if wirelessly charging)," it continued. "But consult with your physician and your device manufacturer for specific guidelines."

The cardiologists say they plan to launch a more comprehensive study of major brands of defibrillators and pacemakers to determine if they are also affected by the iPhone 12's magnets.  

THE LARGER TREND  

Although fears of electromagnetic interference historically led to bans on cell phones in patient care areas, those bans have largely disappeared. In fact, phones and other mobile devices haven't just become ubiquitous in care areas; in some arenas, they've become a necessary part of the ecosystem. 

Still, the Henry Ford cardiologists' discovery may serve as a reminder that medical devices can be vulnerable to interference – either accidental, as from an iPhone, or more malicious, such as from bad actors trying to exploit security weaknesses.

ON THE RECORD  

"We believe our findings have profound implications on a large scale for the people who live daily with these devices, who, without thinking, will place their phone in their shirt pocket or upper pocket or their coat – not knowing that it can cause their defibrillator or pacemaker to function in a way that could potentially be lethal," said Singh.

 

Kat Jercich is senior editor of Healthcare IT News.
Twitter: @kjercich
Email: kjercich@himss.org
Healthcare IT News is a HIMSS Media publication.

Want to get more stories like this one? Get daily news updates from Healthcare IT News.
Your subscription has been saved.
Something went wrong. Please try again.