Harpreet Rai, the CEO of smart ring company Oura, often tells a story about a March 2020 Facebook post. An Oura ring user posted that the device said that his overall health score had dropped below his normal level, which prompted him to get tested for COVID-19 — and the test ended up being positive. The company heard from other users, too.
The anecdotal reports encouraged Oura to partner with research teams to try to figure out how well the ring could predict who might be sick with COVID-19. Their studies were part of a wave of interest over the past year in wearable devices as illness detectors. Now, flush with data, researchers and wearable companies are looking toward their next steps.
Research done over the past year showed that it’s probably possible to flag when someone is sick. But differentiating which illness someone might have will be much harder. Experts think it might eventually be possible, but in the near future, illness detection programs might look more like warning lights: they could tell a user that they might be getting sick, but just not with what.
Even before the pandemic, researchers were checking wearables’ data to see if they could find telltale signatures that might predict illnesses. One study published in early 2020 found that data from Fitbits could predict state-level trends in flu-like illnesses, for example. Other research found that wearable devices could detect signs of Lyme disease. A research team at Mount Sinai Health System in New York used wearables to predict disease flare-ups in patients with inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) like Crohn’s.
When COVID-19 hit, many of those research teams adjusted their focus. “We decided to shift some of our emphasis to how we can evaluate and identify COVID-19 infections, using the same techniques and technology,” says Robert Hirten, a gastroenterologist at Mount Sinai who worked on wearables and IBD.
Hirten’s research showed that Apple Watches could detect changes in the heart rate variability of healthcare workers up to seven days before they were diagnosed with COVID-19. Heart rate variability, which tracks the time between heartbeats, is a good proxy for how the nervous system is working, he says. “Often it seems to be very telling of something going on in the body, even before people realize something is happening.”
Other types of data were also useful. A Stanford University study found that heart rate, daily steps, and time asleep as measured by smartwatches changed in a small group of users before they developed symptoms of COVID-19. The first report from the TemPredict study at the University of California, San Francisco found that the Oura ring could detect increases in body temperature before wearers developed COVID-19 symptoms. Through a partnership with New York-based Northwell Health, Fitbit showed that its devices tracked changes in heart rate and breathing rate in the days before someone started feeling sick.
The research is ongoing. Groups at UCSF and the West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute continue to run studies with Oura ring, and Fitbit is still working on research with Northwell Health. Fitbit is also part of projects out of the Scripps Research Translational Institute and the Stanford Medicine Healthcare Innovation Lab. Apple launched a study on respiratory disease prediction and Apple Watch in April…Read more>>