This iPhone feature can deactivate cardiac devices, doctors find

More than 300,000 people in the U.S. each year undergo surgery to implant devices like a defibrillator, which detects an irregular heartbeat and shocks the heart back to normal rhythm, or a pacemaker, which uses electricity to keep the heart beating, according to Henry Ford Health.

Each device has a switch that responds to external magnets and can change how the device functions.

A magnet can be used to turn off an implanted defibrillator, and a strong magnet can make a pacemaker deliver electrical impulses that cause the heart to beat out of sync. With the latter can come ventricular fibrillation, which can be potentially lethal.

When it was revealed that one of the newest features of the Apple iPhone 12 was a strong magnet that would help maximize charging, it piqued the interest of cardiologist Dr. Gurjit Singh and his colleagues.

“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,” Singh said. “So, we began to wonder if the magnet in the iPhone 12 would affect the safe operation of these devices.”

When Singh passed the iPhone 12 over the chest of a patient with an implantable defibrillator, he found that it was deactivated.

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

Singh said they were stunned, assuming that the magnet would be too weak to trip the switch.

He and his colleagues immediately drafted a manuscript about what they found and submitted it to the medical journal HeartRhythm.

That article caught the attention of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Apple, which published a warning on its website in late January.

“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.”

For now, Singh and his colleagues are working on a more comprehensive study on the matter, but he has this advice for people with defibrillators and pacemakers: Keep the iPhone 12 at least 6 inches away from your chest at all times.

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