The role of wearable devices in an epidemic would be another: to collect and disseminate useful information. Not much. Because, as coronavirus shows, timeliness is not everything but it is a lot
There is an (almost) unexplored field that could help in the event of an epidemic: patient data. Taking advantage of it is not easy: costs, rules, privacy , technology and cross-resistance are involved. The tools to extract them are already on the wrists of millions of people: smartwatches and smart bands , bracelets for fitness.
The prospect (for now it’s a prospect) that they can help is there. But be careful: no self-diagnosis . The role of wearable devices in an epidemic would be another: to collect and disseminate useful information . Not much. Because, as coronavirus shows , timeliness is not everything but it is a lot.
Smartwatch to track infections: a study
On January 16, The Lancet Digital Healt published a study in which an American team observed the spread of “seasonal infections, such as the flu,” through data collected with Fitbit bracelets . The researchers started with 200,000 users, whose information was made anonymous before being processed. They then observed 47,249 individuals, who in five states (California, Texas, New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania) wore smartwatches and bands identical to those on the market. No particular sensor, therefore.
The goal was to predict the spread of the infections by analyzing the heartbeat (which accelerates in case of infection) and the sleep-wake rhythm. By comparing the estimates of the Us Centers for Disease Control, the researchers managed to provide more effective predictions. But above all, they managed to do it – in all five states – in real time, without the one-three week deviation of the official bodies. Knowing immediately means acting first. Information such as these, the study said, “could be vital to implement timely response measures to epidemics and prevent further transmission of cases.”
However, this is not a ready-to-use solution. As the authors themselves admit, the road is still long. For several reasons. The audience of the users analyzed was, all in all, contained. The study focused on the spread of flu-like ailments (i.e. general, with fever and cough) and revealed already obvious symptoms.
The new boundaries of well-being
“We have to be serious and say that consumer devices today cannot provide a diagnosis,” explains Antonio Bosio , product and solutions director of Samsung Italy . The point of view that the group has on its devices is clear: “The sensors that equip smartphones and wearables are suitable for the world of wellnessbecause they have no medical devices. ” This does not mean that they cannot be useful anyway. But the direction, at least for consumer devices, is another: “Realistically, in compliance with the regulations, the goal is to widen the perimeter of wellness. The greater number of sensors will help us understand if we have a fever and will measure the pulse “. No diagnosis, therefore, but – as in the case of the American study – valorisation of the data: “It is possible to have information in real time and convey it appropriately”. The thought immediately goes to smartphones and smartwatches. “But – Bosio underlines – there could be many others. For example, a connected refrigerator that suggests a more suitable diet and treatment of food “. Even in case of infections.
Not only collection but also disclosure
Bosio therefore insists on the concept of ” well-being “, but broadens it. Wearable technology becomes the tool not only to collect but also to spread information. On the one hand, “suggestions on virtuous behavior” could be more easily disclosed . On the other there is the “monitoring of the parameters which, in moments like this, could be of help to specialists to understand if the patient deserves further information”. Starting from the mapping of their welfare, therefore, they are not excluded (indirectly) impact health , even in emergency cases. If users are monitored remotely, “they would not clog hospitals just out of anxiety and the waiting and intervention times would be reduced”.
The brakes: technology and costs
Let’s be clear: there is still talk of perspectives and potential, even though remote care is already a reality. However, extending them to whole countries and applying them to an epidemic is a much more complex matter. The critical issues are many. “If I think of critical situations, such as the one we are experiencing,” Bosio says “one must be sure that the technology entrusted to users is not only perfectly functional, but also simple. Otherwise, the danger is not to reflect the real state of health, making false positives or false negatives emerge ”.
Another technical problem concerns the evolution of sensors. “They should be ability to detect conditions in emergencies. It is not certain that those for measuring the temperature are sufficient ”. There is also an economic aspect: even if, in the long run, efficiency could translate into health savings, “the costs of the devices and those for the operation of the platform that manages them” must be evaluated.
A common platform for data
When we talk about health, we always talk about sensitive data . Once collected, where do they end up, who manages them and how? For Bosio it is “fundamental” to build “a national or macro-regional platform, where information can be brought together”. It is not only a question of data security but also of functionality. “The data must be part of a structured and well-defined path, which must be reconciled with the doctor’s work and not hinder it. Today, however, the world of healthcare is very fragmented. In some regions there is already a digital management and the possibility to share the report. In others not. Data analysis and their conversion is missingin information “. In other words: there is no common platform. And without a large amount of shared data, it is difficult to think of being able to intercept an epidemic. Or, without reaching global emergencies, exploit that digital raw material to transform it into more effective treatments.
The paradox of an interconnected world
This creates a paradox: the coronavirus has made us understand plastically how linked the continents are to each other. Yet, on a planet that has never produced as much data as today, their sharing seems to be missing . Between states that keep them for themselves and companies that privatize them. “The world is interconnected – explains the manager of Samsung – and there is sharing in the scientific world, but not at the level of data circulation. With open data, made anonymous, it is possible to have great benefits. The smart cities that work best are those that use open data. Of course, it is important to ensure that they are properly treated but delays that have also occurred in the case of coronavirus could be avoided ”.
Standards and technologies in search of balance
In short, the skein is one of those intricate. And to further tighten the knots is a matter of “rhythm”: “Speaking of health, politics always operates with great caution. It is not said that it is a wrong approach, but it causes different speeds between technologies and standards. We need a point of balance ”. It is a theme that is not limited to the containment of epidemics, but concerns – more generally – the relationship between innovation and health. Bosio uses a dated example which however gives the idea: “If there had been the Federal aviation administration, the agency that manages civil aviation in the United States, the first flight of the Wright brothers would not have existed. But without the Wright brothers, Federal aviation would not exist. ”