By Michelle Fay Cortez
MINNEAPOLIS — Gianna Chien is somewhat different from all the other researchers reporting on their work to more than 8,000 doctors at the Heart Rhythm Society meeting in Denver.
Chien is 14, and her study — which found that Apple's iPad2 can, in some cases, interfere with life-saving heart devices because of the magnets inside — is based on a science fair project that didn't even win her first place.
The research offers a valuable warning for people with implanted defibrillators, which deliver an electric shock to restart a stopped heart, said John Day, head of heart-rhythm services at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, Utah, and chairman of the panel that reviews scientific papers to be presented at the Denver meeting.
If a person falls asleep with the iPad2 on the chest, the magnets in the cover can "accidentally turn off" the heart device, said Chien, a high school freshman in Stockton, Calif., whose father is a doctor. "I definitely think people should be aware. That's why I'm presenting the study."
Defibrillators, as a safety precaution, are designed to be turned off by magnets. The iPad2 uses 30 magnets to hold the iPad2's cover in place, Chien said in a telephone interview. While the iPad2 magnets aren't powerful enough to cause problems when a person is holding the tablet out in front of the chest, it can be risky to rest it against the body, she found.
Trudy Muller, an Apple spokeswoman, declined to comment on the study in an email, referring questions about the iPad2's safety to its online product guide. The guide cautions users about radio frequency interference, suggests that patients with pacemakers keep the iPad at least six inches away and says they should be turned off in health-care facilities when instructed by staff or posted signs.
The study involving 26 volunteers with defibrillators found "magnet mode" was triggered in 30 percent of patients who put the tablet on their chest. The iPad2 didn't interfere with four pacemakers or a loop-recorder, which were also tested. Walter Chien, a cardiac electrophysiologist, helped his daughter coordinate the patient testing.
Medtronic Inc., the leading manufacturer of defibrillators, said its testing hasn't found any risks from iPad technology when used according to the manufacturer's instructions. The Minneapolis-based company does tell patients to avoid placing any magnets near the area where their devices are implanted.
"The presentation at Heart Rhythm 2013 is a good reminder for patients to remain vigilant on new technology and its accessories and maintain a distance of six inches between an iPad and an implanted pacemaker or ICD," the company said in a statement.
Most defibrillators will turn back on once the magnet is no longer affecting the device. Some, however, remain off until the magnet is reapplied or the device is turned back on manually, the younger Chien said. Patients should be told about the risk and doctors should check the devices to see if they have been inadvertently turned off by magnets, she said.
Chien said she received an iPad2 for her birthday in August 2011. She was struck at the time by the number of older customers taking a class on how to use the device at the company store and, given her father's specialty, wondered if there could be a connection between the iPads and their heart devices.
"I don't think anyone really knows about the risks," Chien said.
The results are important because they can help raise awareness of the danger in a very specific setting, said Day, the heart meeting official, in a telephone interview. "Defibrillator patients can still buy Apple products," he said. "Just don't put them on your chest."
A regular at Johns Hopkins University's Center for Talented Youth, Chien doesn't see herself becoming a doctor. At the camp, she regularly participates in the writing program and she said that one of her favorite parts of the iPad2 project was summing the results for publication in a medical journal. Eventually, she wants to write a novel, she said.
Chien first presented her results in the San Joaquin County Science Fair's high school category in March, but the project was beat out for the top spot by work on electromagnetics and on the effect of punctuation mark placement in keyboards on carpal tunnel syndrome.
Chien, who rows in her free time, says she may revisit the issue for next year's science fair, looking at the risks with other electronic products.