Detecting COVID-19 with a smartwatch: Does it really work?

Smartwatches makers are investing a lot in developing algorithms robust enough to detect early signs of COVID-19.

Image: Brian McGowan Image: Fitbit - DISCLAIMER: To guarantee our independence, Digital Health Central is only supported by you, our readers. When you buy through our links, we may earn a commission.

Smartwatches are real health computers. They are nowadays much more than a simple step counter. An average wearable device will record as many as 250,000 data points every single day.

The new models, such as the Apple Watch Series 6, the Fitbit Sense, can even record your temperature, heart rate, stress level, quality of sleep, and so much more. In the times of pandemics we live in, can our smartwatch be used to detect early signs of Covid-19? This is the question we will try to answer.

Numerous studies are on the way

Most fitness trackers companies are conducting clinical studies to validate their products’ usefulness in detecting early warning signs of the disease.

Detecting Covid-19 viral infection is a complex goal, and biomedical engineers analyze tons of health data to extract the relevant ones.

1. Fitbit

In May, Fitbit launched a vast study to build an algorithm robust enough to inform users of early signs of Covid-19. Relying on the data collected from more than 100,000 study participants, the company published the results of their study in a peer-reviewed journal.

Fitbit’s algorithms detected 50 percent of Covid-19 cases, with 70 percent specificity one day before the users reported any symptoms. 50 percent may not seem a lot, but it is dramatically important. By informing the users early, they can isolate and contribute to limiting the spread of the virus.

Image: Fitbit

Fitbit researchers detected two key health indicators to detect Covid-19 early:

  • The Heart Rate Variability (HRV) corresponds to the beat-to-beat variation. It was at its lowest point one day after the onset of the symptoms.
  • Contrary to HRV, resting heart rate and breathing rate were elevated.

Not only did the smartwatches help in detecting Covid-19, but some data appeared to be good predictors of the severity of the disease. Shortness of breath is the main one in predicting a potential hospitalization.

Detecting oxygen levels in real-time was also a good predictor of the severity of the illness.

2. Apple Watch Series 6

The new Apple Watch Series 6 offers the ability to measure oxygen levels as well. In partnership with the University of Washington, Apple plans to conduct a research study during the flu season.

The study will also analyze the heart rate and sleep patterns. The goal is to focus on digital health data and remind the user of good practices to avoid Covid-19, such as regular hand washes.

Image: Raagesh C.

Apple aims to go beyond Covid-19 and paves the way to using the Apple Watch in health care. Other studies in collaboration with UC Irvine and Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research will focus on analyzing blood oxygen levels in Asthma and Heart failure.

In the fight against Covid-19, Apple goes beyond smartwatches and collaborates with Google to develop a contact tracing application.

Beyond Apple and Fitbit for the detection of Covid-19

Pr Eric Topol from the Script Institute is unanimously recognized as a thought leader in digital health. He recently launched an initiative, Digital Engagement & Tracking for Early control & Treatment (DETECT), to detect coronavirus outbreaks.

Whoop developed a wrist-worn heart monitor to detect COVID-19 two days before the symptoms’ onset in twenty percent of the cases. The algorithm still needs to be fine-tuned but is a first step in the right direction. The company partners with the Harvard Medical School in a global project to detect and track the disease called the Resilience project.

Image: Oura

Smartwatches are not the only devices with the ability for early detection. The Oura Ring tracks activity, sleep, temperature, pulse rate, and heart rate. The associated algorithm was validated by researchers at West Virginia University Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute.

The company claims that the smart ring can detect early signs of COVID-19 up to three days before the symptoms’ onset. Doubts have been raised about the ability of the Oura ring to detect the disease.

The NBA and WNBA somehow bought 2,000 rings as part of their COVID-19 prevention strategy. The data recorded are combined with swab testings to provide a global health assessment of the players and detect the disease’s early signs.

Can I trust my smartwatch to detect COVID-19?

All of these devices are only as good as the data they collect. They rely on constant monitoring will it be during the days or the nights. Battery life and the need to recharge the smartwatches regularly may be an issue for providing accurate information.

The other issue relates to privacy. Health data are highly personal and sensitive information. It goes far beyond our shopping or internet browsing habits.

By letting companies collect and store our health information, we open the door to potential major privacy issues. A trade-off must be found between the value of the information provided and our legitimate privacy concern.

Was this article helpful?