As wearable devices such as fitness wristbands and watches track signs such as body temperature, could they be used to help detect the early signs of COVID-19 infection and thereby help public health responses?
There are now many ‘wearables’ (health and fitness-related devices) on the market such as Fitbits (and other fitness-tracking wristbands), Apple and Garmin Watches, and even ‘smart’ items of clothing. The idea that some researchers have been testing is that wearable devices could act as a kind of early symptom-spotting device for the wearer for conditions like COVID or flu.
For example, back in January, before the pandemic’s huge spread, research published in the Lancet detailed how researchers had noted that when people are fighting an illness such as influenza, their heart rates are faster, their sleep routines are different to normal, and they tend to spend more time sitting/lying down. With this in mind, the researchers used fitness data from more than 47,000 Fitbit users across five U.S. states to test whether a Fitbit device could be used to improve influenza predictions compared to traditional flu surveillance methods (which can take weeks). The researchers found that using the Fitbit data could enhance flu surveillance and consequently improve public health responses.
Wearables Detecting Symptoms
It does appear to be possible, therefore, that wearable devices could detect some symptoms/signs of COVID-19 infection. For example, wearable temperature patches that send data to smart devices could help to record temperature and sweat rate could be measured by sensors that detect compounds in sweat.
Much of the research for rapid pathogen detection, however, is heading in the direction of trying to develop miniature ‘lab-on-a-chip’ testing. One example is research focusing on the development of an ion-sensitive field-effect transistor (ISFET) that can detect the presence of an RNA virus i.e. a virus with RNA (ribonucleic acid) as its genetic material. Such viruses include the common cold, influenza, SARS, COVID-19, Dengue Virus, and Hepatitis C.
What Does This Mean For Your Business?
Wearable technology is growing in popularity and health/exercise-related wearables such as bracelets continue to provide helpful insights that can help with healthy living and, therefore, help build healthier immune systems or reduce the chances of users suffering badly from diseases if they do catch them. For example, COVID-19 appears more likely to severely affect those who are overweight. Enhancing wearables with more medical diagnostics is an exciting prospect that could provide opportunities for specialised businesses. Research, however, is still in the relatively early stages and there are several big challenges to overcome including creating accurate diagnostic (miniature) technology, and privacy and security challenges in the sharing of fitness/medical data from wearables.