Do you wear a smartwatch? If yes, have you ever wondered if your smartwatch can tell you if you have caught COVID-19? So, can your smartwatch really detect if you have COVID-19 or not?
The answer is yes – to a certain extent!
Scientists at Stanford followed 2,155 smartwatch-wearers for 8 months. And their devices included FitBit, Garmin, and Apple watches. Whenever there was a drastic change in the heartbeat, users received an alert. And they had to instantly record what they were doing on an app they suggested – were they exercising? Had a quarrel with somebody? Or were simply resting? You got the idea…This was mainly done to rule out any kind of false alarm. Because many factors could impact the sudden heart rate fluctuations. For instance, from jogging to traveling on an airplane or even consuming alcohol.
Put simply, you know it is nothing to worry about if you were just exercising. However, if you were just sipping tea and there was a sudden rise in the heartbeat – then that’s definitely something to worry about.
Also, a team of researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai has found evidence that suggests smartwatches can detect COVID-19 symptoms even before a person has become aware that they are infected.
The study found that the alerts caught 80% of COVID-19 cases either before or at the onset of symptoms, including some who had no symptoms at all.
Having said that, scientists expressed that more research and trials need to be done to be able to firmly say that smartwatches can help detect COVID-19. For this, they plan to add data like body temperature, step count, and sleep patterns to weed out false alarms completely.
How can a smartwatch detect COVID-19?
What’s the early sign of a COVID-19 infection? Yes, it’s the inflammation in the infected areas of the body. So, when there is an inflammation, the body reacts by slightly altering the body’s blood flow. This in turn affects the infected person’s heartbeat which the smartwatch can easily detect.
And by observing the person’s heartbeat for some period of time, a smartwatch can determine a normal baseline for the person wearing the watch. Thus, when there is a sudden yet consistent change in the person’s heart rate variability, the smartwatch can easily detect that too.
Insights from the study…
As mentioned earlier, in the test at Mount Sinai, the researchers asked the volunteers to wear the smartwatch full-time and also to install a watch app that specifically looked for sustained changes in their heartbeat. After a careful and thorough observation, the researchers found that the smartwatches were able to identify two-thirds of the people with COVID-19 infection – an average of seven days even before they could notice any actual symptoms.
Yellow alert and red alert…
That is, the researchers created a real-time, tiered alarm system – ‘yellow and red alert’. Yellow means something’s up, and the person should start sheltering in place. And a red alert signifies you are going through a lot of stress. If you know the reason, like high altitude or too much alcohol, you can ignore it, but if you’re not doing anything unusual, yet you received a red alert then it means you may be fighting off some virus infection, thereby signaling you to self-isolate first. And then consider taking a COVID-19 test.
Also, CBS News recently looked into the findings by the team at Mount Sinai and those of another study at Stanford University, as well as other companies investigating whether their smartwatches could work similarly. And they found that for the most part, the answer was yes – a smartwatch could detect COVID-19 infection up to a week before the onset of symptoms.
Not just that, they further noted that scientists and researchers with the help of engineers could develop apps that sync with smartwatches to alert the user – so that they could self-quarantine first even before testing – in case they receive an alert about their heart rate variability.
And this in turn would help slow the spread of the COVID-19 infection, thereby, saving the lives of millions. One correct step at the right time is all it takes to curtail the spread and the impact of the pandemic.
Are there any limitations?
It’s true that smartwatches help detect these conditions and diseases in a non-invasive way, but they definitely have limitations.
One limitation, though, is that this study on smartwatches being able to detect COVID-19 was retrospective. That is, it looked back at data collected both before and after a prediction point, which isn’t much use if you want to catch the infection as and when it happens.
And another limitation was the uncertainty in the alert/signal system, thereby, making it hard to establish crisp baselines that, when breached, indicate a possible problem. Some people, for instance, maybe on some kind of medication – BP, Thyroid, etc. And this in turn may interfere with the heart rate. Or some people may have difficulty breathing due to severe asthma, as some did in Snyder’s study. Not just that sometimes, alarms can also be triggered by factors other than infection, including long flights, alcohol, or stress as mentioned earlier. All these reasons may affect the possibility of smartwatches to accurately detect if a person has COVID-19 or not.
To sum it up…
The deadly COVID-19 has infected more than 100 million people and killed more than 2 million. It’s spreading like wildfire, thereby, making it difficult for people to get tested and get the much-needed treatment. Thus, it’s important to find ways to identify the people who are infected with COVID-19. So that we can cut the chain of transmission and end the pandemic. Fortunately, smartwatches are a ray of hope that may soon make this possible.
Researchers are testing out the possibilities of smartwatches being able to detect if a person has caught COVID-19 or not. As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure – being able to isolate and take other precautionary measures even before the test results come out positive – will help limit the spread of COVID-19 and save many lives. However, the researchers are still studying the scope of the same. Very soon this will come true – where a smartwatch will be able to accurately detect if a person has caught COVID-19 and not just make a prediction based on the heart rate variability data.
Let’s hope for the best!
Stay healthy, stay safe. May the force be with you. 🙂