Smartwatches could be proving valuable in the fight against COVID-19. Some countries including the States and the UK are experiencing a shortage in diagnostic testing. Wearable fitness and health trackers are providing a surprise solution to early detection of COVID-19 symptoms before the virus itself becomes present.
At the end of June, the Senior Director of Research at Global Data said that wearable health and fitness trackers with heart rate monitors and other sensors might be a game-changer in detecting COVID-19.
Given that the virus is so highly-contagious, being able to detect it early is critical in reducing the rate of infection. Especially so as economies around the world are being opened up again.
The problem people are having is severe delays in getting their test results back. This makes it all the more critical that we pick up on the earlier signs. Data collected by our wearable fitness and health trackers are showing promise for detecting the virus.
Your fitness tracker or smartwatch might have the capability to monitor your health stats like your heart rate, sleep quality, blood oxygen levels, blood pressure, temperature and more.
Currently, there are ongoing studies that are harnessing the data from wearable devices, including a huge selection of Fitbit users, to detect early signs of COVID-19. Results from these studies are looking promising, too. There’s a pressure on companies to address pricing as the benefits of their devices are so clear, but not necessarily accessible to all.
Detecting covid symptoms
Fitness trackers and smartwatches with health sensors are an existing tool for getting an idea of your general health. Studies have been ongoing since before the current pandemic. Fitbit user data has been used to identify influenza in the past. Looking at symptoms like elevated heart rate during daily activities versus rest periods as a sign of infection. The new Apple Watch 6 is a fine example of a smartwatch that cares about your health.
Fitbit fitness trackers
Fitbit devices monitor both your heart rate and sleep quality. An elevated heart rate is a common sign of potential infection. Most Fitbit devices carry a heart rate monitor as standard. As they’re monitoring your heart rate around the clock, even when you sleep, any abnormal changes can be swiftly identified.
Of course, your fitness tracker or smartwatch is not going to send you a notification with an official diagnosis. But what you can use your wearable for is to pick up any sudden changes to your normal functioning. In the case of COVID-19, you’re able to use common sense to decide if these symptoms mean it would be best to isolate.
We know by now that a high temperature and persistent cough are the two most occurring COVID-9 symptoms. This means sales in thermometers has rocketed.
Temperature sensors aren’t yet commonplace in smartwatches and fitness trackers. The newly-released Fitbit Sense is one such device, though. The fact you don’t see temperature sensors often is due to the fact that it is a complicated process to get an accurate reading from your skin. The temperature of your skin varies wildly depending on environmental factors and it’s easier to raise or lower that temperature. Your sweat and stress levels also play an influential role in this. Because of this, the contact the sensor will have with your skin isn’t always optimal for an accurate reading.
Again, a high temperature alone isn’t a diagnosis, but it’s possible to look at a combination of factors that your wearable will monitor for you and you can make a better informed decision based on the data.
Sweat and tears
Ongoing development of sensors in wearable devices is expanding the possibility of using these devices for more diagnostic purposes. COVID-19 has had a huge impact on this development and, safe to say, has also accelerated it.
It’s been suggested that a sweat sensor be incorporated into devices. This would pick up on sweat levels on the skin. This could potentially tell us vast amounts of information about the user’s health. Including, alcohol and glucose content, sodium ion levels and pH.
Did you know your tears are useful indicators, too? Technology is so advanced that there’s research into smart contact lenses.
As we’ve said, no smartwatch or fitness tracker can tell you if you’ve got COVID-19. To do this, they’d need to detect a specific kind of virus-specific acid known as RNA.
Detecting RNA involves many complicated steps in the process. There have been developments in reducing the amount of equipment needed, but the road to having this technology in something you wear on your wrist is a long way off.
So, whilst the tech isn’t in a wearable format yet, the direction is clear. Virus-detecting wearables will eventually become a reality. The continuous monitoring of a person’s health will be connected to tech that will indicate if they’ve been in contact with the virus, which enables that person to seek medical treatment and encourage isolation.
Any airborne virus will require some truly sophisticated sensor to collect and analyse air samples. We’re starting to talk about some real space-age sci-fi stuff, now. Whilst the technology does exist to do this, there’s no sign yet of being able to condense it into such a micro format that you’d be able to embed it into a wearable.
Wearable and accessible
It’s a bold claim that your existing smartwatch or fitness tracker could help you to diagnose if you have COVID-19 (or not), but it’s not impossible. Unfortunately, like traditional testing, not everyone has access to a wearable device. They can be expensive and, largely, the market is aimed at English-speaking territories. Vulnerable people such as the elderly may also be resistant to smart tech and being monitored.
Research and development continue. Our wearable technology is becoming more and more focused on our health and fitness. Brands have a duty to make this accessible to as many people as possible because the benefits to society are undeniable.