Could wearables like Apple Watch, Fitbit fitness trackers help detect coronavirus?

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Personal electronics makers like Apple, Fitbit and Samsung build fitness trackers, smartwatches and other wearables to help keep us healthy by monitoring our activity. Increasingly, they’re also being used to identify and monitor the sick.

And now, as those stricken with COVID-19 overwhelm the nation’s health care system, the scarcity of test kits confounds hospitals’ ability to quantify the onslaught and make critical decisions for where to deploy doctors, nurses, respirators and other scarce care resources.

To fill the void, hospitals are grasping for creative new ways to ease the burden, like incorporating wearables into their coronavirus efforts. Specifically, they plan to use them to:

  • Track the progress of the pandemic as it spreads across the country
  • Identify doctors, nurses and other clinicians who have contracted the disease as quickly as possible, and
  • Monitor coronavirus patients to make better decisions about who should be hospitalized – and when.

The first task, population monitoring, can be achieved with most any wearable that tracks activity and heart rate. The second two, however, require advanced metrics for which a small but growing percentage of wearables are equipped to track.

In the long run, the urgency that is spurring wearables’ swift integration into providers’ pandemic response could result in lasting changes for what wearables track, and how our doctors make use of that data to help keep an eye on our conditions and decide how and when to treat us.

Population tracking

For several years now, researchers have recognized the potential for wearables to serve as crowd-sourcing tools to track the spread of disease. And now, with as many as 1 in 3 Americans wearing fitness tracking devices, the crowd is finally large enough to contribute.

In January, for example, Scripps Research Translational Institute announced that it built a model to track influenza by monitoring de-identified data like heart rate, sleep duration and activity from tens of thousands of Fitbits.

And last week, Scripps announced a new, broader wearables study designed to quickly pinpoint outbreaks of viruses in general, and coronavirus in particular. If you want to contribute, Scripps is soliciting wearable-wearing volunteers to participate in the study.

To be effective at estimating disease in populations, scientists like those at Scripps don’t actually need wearables to be smart enough to spot symptoms in individuals. If, for example, my Fitbit found that my heart rate is higher and step counts are lower this week, there’s no way to conclude I’ve got coronavirus. But if twice as many smartwatch wearers here in Scottsdale exhibit the same pattern, local officials might deduce the disease is spreading here, and use that information to feed policy decisions.

To detect disease in individuals, researchers need more advanced metrics. Silicon Valley startup Spire, for example, can track “respiratory effort” using its Health Tags, unique washable devices that adhere to the skin side of clothing.

The Department of Health and Human Services chartered Spire to build early-detection models based on those metrics. The study is now concluded, and preliminary results are promising, the company said.

Coronavirus detection: One infection at a time

In addition to Spire’s Health Tags, there are other wearables that go beyond population tracking-class metrics to help monitor the condition of individuals, whether that be doctors, nurses or patients.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies three broad coronavirus symptoms. One is respiratory distress, like what Spire monitors, in the form of shortness of breath. The other two are fever and coughing.

Validic, a health data platform provider that is now helping health care organizations deploy its COVID-19 monitoring package, is prioritizing fever as a leading indicator. It’s now working to incorporate wearables that can spot fevers. That’s something few wrist-worn devices do today.

Two devices have captured Validic’s attention. One is the Oura Ring, one of the only consumer-class wearables with a built-in temperature sensor. And the other is the BioSticker, a medical-grade stick-able from Colorado startup BioIntellisense. The BioSticker adheres to the chest cavity, a great spot to monitor temperature – as well as respiration and coughing frequency, two metrics closely aligned with the other CDC-identified symptoms.

Both devices sample temperature once a minute, so they can detect slight increases that could signal infection days before symptoms show.

For its part, Oura is sponsoring a study of COVID-19 health care providers, outfitting 2,000 caregivers at the University of California, San Francisco, with the Oura Ring. The company is tracking respiratory rate and heart rate as well as temperature as it tries to build a model for early coronavirus detection. If you have an Oura Ring, you can join the study via the smartphone app.

The BioSticker measures temperature as part of a suite of metrics designed to help clinicians monitor patients’ vitals. And Oura built it into its ring to add precision to its sleep metrics, and also to help gauge recovery. Few fitness tracker makers bother, because they haven’t seen a point.

Watch for that to change now. Drew Schiller, CEO of Validic, says he expects sensors that monitor advanced metrics like body temperature and oxygen saturation will become commonplace in wearables within a few years.

“Perhaps more important is that the health care system now understands that wearables and remote monitoring are actually really important,” Schiller said. “It’s very clear that if we had this in place, we would have been able to get out ahead of coronavirus, instead of playing from behind.”

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