A lot has happened in the past year, and since we live in a digital world, it's not surprising that technology is being used to help the world at large cope with the pandemic. In a previous blog we discussed the rise in mindfulness and mental health products during the pandemic. Another wave of wearables have also emerged, aiming to help us (and our governments) prevent and contain the spread of COVID-19. In this blog, we dive into the research to understand what’s working, and the questions we should be asking as these technologies become more ingrained in our lives.
How has the market changed?
Currently, wearables are approaching a $220 million dollar market with healthcare and fitness industries leading the way. Perhaps one the biggest changes in tech right now is the new wifi upgrade. After 20 years, the 6GHz frequency band will be opened for public use, and more bandwidth equals a faster connection. As an aside, this additional band supports increased choice, which may make internet access more affordable. All of which will help drive the current growth of wearable technology.
Looking to the future, new wearable technology might be self powered. An article recently published in Nature suggested the concept of a ‘wearable microgrid’ that harvests and stores energy from sweat and bodily motion. Another interesting article in Forbes outlines some more technology that is underway, such as exoskeletons (robotic suits), intelligent prosthetics (robotic limbs that are controlled by the nervous system), and AI for the brain (using your mind to type!). While it may seem like we’ve come a long way, wearable technology is only in its infancy, and is rapidly growing.
Wearables for detecting COVID-19
There is a substantial amount of research being conducted on wearables, and how they might be used to detect early signs of COVID, and in turn prevent the spread. For example, a recent study published in Nature found that wearables offer a unique advantage over conventional methods of measuring symptoms, in that they provide continuous real-time measurement of our health data. This allows for a rapid comparison to baseline physiological data, and ultimately a much faster assessment of symptoms compared to periodic healthcare visits.
As more consumers adopt Fitbits or Apple watches, they are building their personal health data profile every time sensors passively log using the heart rate, steps taken, and sleep data. As this data grows, it can start revealing valuable insights about our health and can even be combined with self-reported symptoms to paint an accurate picture of our health without visiting a doctor. Researchers have found that combining self-reported symptoms with smart watch data can greatly improve the accuracy over just the physiological data alone. Another article also points out that this data could be aggregated across users and used for prediction models, which can be utilized by public health leaders to alert an outbreak of COVID-19 well in advance.
Wearables for treating COVID-19
Wearables can also be useful for monitoring individuals with COVID-19 to aid practitioners who are working with patients virtually. Researchers point out that this could also help pave the way for AI-based decision support systems and telerobotics for caregivers to administer medication and even control ventilators. These use-cases would surely reduce the burden on ICUs and nurses during a pandemic.
Other behavioural research has also pointed out that individuals with COVID-19 spent more time on their phones, and in particular, more time using social media apps. Researchers also found that younger people spent more time at home during lockdown and took fewer steps than older individuals. Given these trends, our team wonders if wearables could incentivize more young people to stop scrolling and get moving?
Besides some of the more typical wearables like Fitbits or Apple Watches, others may be on the horizon. For example, some researchers have even speculated that smart wearable glasses could be used to detect the spread of COVID-19. In this case, glasses are equipped with sensors that have the same characteristics as a microscope, and help detect the presence of COVID-19 cells. Additionally, smart thermometers are being used to constantly monitor body temperature and alert you of potential infection before symptoms appear. These sensors are generally low-cost, accurate, and added to easy to use devices that can be worn or stuck to the skin under clothing.
Wearables for public health surveillance
Another more contentious class of wearables have been piloted for contact tracing to help governments alert citizens to potential exposures and effectively track, trace, and isolate infected individuals. These devices were released amidst growing public concerns over data privacy and decreasing trust in government leaders as misinformation grew. Our research also found little data on the efficacy of these tools, and the answers are mixed.
In a recent public opinion survey, it was found that when consumers think about adopting new technologies they make decisions based on how comfortable they feel overall using the technology, and the security of their data. This is a strong message to developers, whether in the private sector or government, that education about privacy and increasing overall tech literacy will be important moving forward.
While uptake varied widely across the world, some regions had positive experiences with the technologies. In a study conducted using respondents from Singapore, Hong Kong, and Malaysia, where policies on digital contact tracing exist, there was a wide range of public acceptance for the technologies. Around 75% of Singapore respondents felt it was effective, 50% in Malaysia, and less than 20% in Hong Kong. Of course there are a myriad of factors that influence public trust in government policy, but the main message here is that it is possible to have acceptance by the population at large, and that work would need to be done to tease out how to impact countries with lower acceptance rates.
So what does this all mean?
As with all new tech, there is risk. All things considered, wearables seem to be offering benefits from preventing the spread of infectious disease, to supporting those who are ill in seeking treatments. So far, there doesn’t seem to be any imminent risks to these technologies, but we do need to start asking bigger questions about how our data is being used, collected, and stored by different actors.
We dive deeper into the role of wearables in our digital recovery in our new podcast: Embodying the future of better health.
Tune into our first episode that explores how digital health can support our pandemic recovery. Here's what you can expect in episode one:
- We begin with a 2 minute meditation to set the stage for 20 minutes of reflections on the path ahead.
- Coaching techniques to help us build healthier habits & ideas on how to navigate the wearables available to help you live better today
- Highlights from our conversation with Mette Dyhrberg, an economist turned diagnostician that used data to heal herself back to health after battling 6 different autoimmune diseases. Since founding Mymee in 2017, she has helped 1000+ patients manage their health
We also reflect on the digital divide: Who is being left out and how can we design for inclusion? This future will require us to design the stepping stones to more equitable healthcare for those who need it most.
While there is still work to be done to increase access, develop more robust consumer protection standards, and ensure these technologies are being tested and validated, the road to a life empowered by wearables looks bright.
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