COVID-19 has caused immense changes in our society and soon, our digital devices could help the diagnosis process. Unlike other gadgets, smartwatches are attached to our wrists and they have various sensors that can measure our health metrics. With certain software modifications, it is possible to tell whether someone has COVID-19 although they don’t show any symptom. This is important because according to studies, more than half affected individuals with COVID-19 are asymptomatic. The local health authorities can be automatically notified and the person should immediately be tested. This proposal doesn’t come from the tech industry, but from well-known medical institutions like California’s Stanford University and Mount Sinai Health System. Researches from Mt. Sinai found that they could use Apple Watch to detect subtle changes in heart rate that could indicate that the person has coronavirus, one week before he feels sick or can get positive results from typical COVID-19 tests.
Researches have discovered that an ongoing infection could have an effect on the variations of the heartbeat and it is a sign that the immune system is dealing with external threats. Heart rate variability is a marker that indicates a developing inflammation inside the body. COVID-19 causes a systemic inflammation, especially on the respiratory system and muscles. There’s a potential that smartwatches with fairly accurate heart rate monitors can predict a condition before the person is aware about it. People with COVID-19 display lower variability in heart rate and it also means that the interval between each heart beat barely changes. Healthy people have larger heart beat variations, because it’s a sign that their body is more resistant to stress. It is usually not a good sign if the heart rate is higher than normal, while higher variability in heart rate is a good sign. During the studies, about three hundred workers of Mt. Sinai used Apple Watch between April and September.
In theory, smartphone market can create a notification system if user’s heart rates have lower variability and elevated for a certain period of time. It means, brief fluctuations don’t trigger the alarm, because only sustained changes may indicate possible COVID-19 infections. This is important, because users can immediately avoid participating in social events or meeting with family members. Regular coronavirus testing methods have certain drawbacks and a smartwatch-based monitoring may solve this problem. This solution should be more reliable, because smartwatch could track users’ health metrics for nearly 24/7. Smartwatches could give real-time logging, while you get test results after a few days. Some smartwatch models with ECG feature may have better sensitivity. It is much easier to mitigate the spread of coronavirus if the transmission is detected early. At the moment, health workers need to take blood, saliva and nasal fluid samples to test the possible condition. To test past infections, health workers will perform blood-based serological test and nucleic acid test to detect currently active infections. Although nucleic acid diagnostic is accurate, it takes a few days before reliable results can be obtained. Smartwatch sensing may not match laboratory-based diagnosis, but it could become another layer of defence to contain the pandemic.