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Smart Watches Enlisted to Detect Viral Outbreaks

Operating a smart watch


26 Mar. 2020. A research institute is asking people with smart watches and activity trackers to donate their data to find early signs of viral disease outbreaks, like Covid-19. The Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California started enrolling participants in its Detect study, short for Digital Engagement and Tracking for Early Control and Treatment.

The Detect study aims to provide data in near real time that can alert health authorities to viral disease outbreaks much earlier than current methods, which rely on periodic reports from hospitals and medical practices. People with smart watches and wearable activity tracking devices, estimated at one in five adults in the U.S., offer a promising source of health data for collection and analysis.

“In light of the ongoing flu season and the global pandemic of Covid-19,” says Scripps epidemiologist and project leader Jennifer Radin in an institute statement, “we see enormous opportunity to enhance disease tracking for improved population health. One way to do this is to leverage and analyze the rich health data that’s already being collected by the millions of Americans who regularly use wearable devices.”

Radin is lead author of a study published last month in The Lancet Digital Health that collected data from Fitbit activity trackers worn by 200,000 individuals in the U.S. over a two year period. The study correlated resting heart rate and sleep data collected by the devices in the five states with the most participants — California, Texas, New York, Illinois, and Pennsylvania — with reports of influenza-like illnesses reported to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The results show a high correlation between predictions of flu-like illness rates from the collected data in these states with actual CDC reports.

The new study aims to enroll adults in the U.S. with smart watches and fitness trackers made by Apple, Fitbit, Amazfit, and Garmin to provide data through the MyDataHelps app made by health technology company CareEvolution. The app is available for download in Apple iOS and Android versions. Participants are asked to donate their data on heart rate, activity levels and sleep, with logs of respiratory symptoms, treatments received, and diagnostic test results. In addition, those signing up will be asked to optionally share data from their electronic health records.

The findings, says Scripps, are expected to complement existing public health surveillance methods, making it possible to detect viral disease outbreaks earlier and with more geographic precision. The results could also help public health authorities respond faster and isolate patients earlier.

“Our wearables track key health metrics like heart rate, resting heart rate, heart rate variability, and sleep patterns,” notes James Park, co-founder and CEO of Fitbit, “and these indicators across large populations can help alert health officials to potential outbreaks. Park adds that the Detect study can, “validate how health data from wearables can be used as a powerful public health tool for early illness detection, enhancing the ability to track and respond to disease outbreaks like Covid-19 in the future.”

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