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What a wearable researcher wants you to know about using your fitness tracker to self-diagnose—and self-monitor—COVID-19


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Graphics: Well+Good Creative

Wearable technology has come a long way since the clunky heart rate monitors introduced in the 1970s. Now that it’s 2020, and we’re all learning how to live in a world temporarily interrupted by COVID-19, fitness tracker companies are introducing technology meant to detect early signs of contracting the virus and record biometrics as the user fights it off. The question, says Michael Snyder, PhD, the director of the Center for Genomics and Personalized Medicine at Stanford University, is whether or not we can rely on our wearables to provide useful information during a pandemic.

In the course of the last week, both Apple and Whoop have announced special features for wearable-owners infected with COVID-19. Apple’s new cardiogram feature gives users the option of tracking their own health with COVID-19 using the wearable’s heart rate monitor. And Whoop announced in an Instagram post that its team is working to gather “an anonymous dataset for before, during, and after infection” with the help of user-submitted journals.

Using a tracker’s data to predict the onset of sickness and disease isn’t exactly a new thing. Such data has been used as an early indicator of the common cold and influenza. Dr. Snyder used a fitness tracker to discover that he himself had contracted Lyme disease (a finding that he then confirmed with a doctor). When it comes to COVID-19, however, Dr. Snyder says that—given how little the medical community and wearable companies know about the virus—detecting early symptoms might be a little more complicated than predicting the common cold.

“An increased heart rate could be due to many types of respiratory issues, not just COVID-19.” —Michael Snyder, PhD

“We showed in our 2017 paper that respiratory infections can be picked up by increased resting heart rate before people are symptomatic,” says Dr. Snyder, adding that his team just got approved for an Institutional Review Board study to test if the same is true for COVID-19. “But note an increased heart rate could be due to many types of respiratory issues, not just COVID-19,” he adds.

In other words, right nowas the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States surpasses 10,000 and known global cases reached 244,000—it’s impossible to interpret the data for yourself. “If you see an increased heart rate the watch can alert you and you might ‘shelter-in-place’, says Dr. Snyder. Of course, though, there is no substitute for actually being tested for the virus.

As or Akil Palanisamy, MD, previously told Well+Good: “Wearables can provide additional data on factors such as heart rate and sleep that offer useful clinical information. It is a valid tool that can help predict the likelihood of illness, but they should not be used in place of a doctor who can diagnose illness [especially] if a patient has any ‘red flag’ symptoms like chest pain, trouble breathing, or abdominal pain.” Dr. Snyder envisions a future in which wearables will play a huge role in early-diagnoses and monitoring a patient’s recovery from start to finish. We’re just not there yet.

Doctors want you to stop believing these myths about COVID-19. And remember, make sure you’re staying connected with those you love even though you can’t be together together. 

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