From Treatment to Tracking: How IoT, Wearable Devices Help Fight COVID-19
The “new normal” is anything but normal. One out of every five people on earth have been under some sort of quarantine and strict social distancing measures apply for those not confined to their homes. The unexpected restrictions to modern life require us all to adapt, and this adaptation foregrounds the importance of technical applications within health.
Telehealth and telemedicine suddenly offer much more than simple convenience. Now, the ability for health workers to remotely treat patients saves lives and lessens hospital burden.
This ability to remotely provide health services is undoubtedly powered by the rise of connected devices and wearable health tech. These devices empower doctors from anywhere on earth to make data-backed decisions — and this seemingly overnight uptake to and realization of telehealth is poised to transform the tech in the long term.
The virtual (health) reality
This public health emergency demands a new delivery of care. With global health systems struggling under the weight of COVID-19, all remaining medical resources need to be used efficiently. Many health services, therefore, are turning to virtual health services to see more patients, more easily.
This is important for non-life-threatening issues which still require medical attention. For example, audiologists need to personally calibrate hearing aids to each and every user. However, instead of visiting patients at their home, IoT technology is allowing technicians to make remote hearing aid adjustments immediately.
Meanwhile, technology is also helping families to perform wellbeing checks on elder relatives during this time of isolation. Some solutions use IoT sensors to track each time the front door opens and closes so family members know when someone has gone out or returned home. These solutions might sound minor, yet prevent patients from breaking self-isolation and empower health providers to consult anyone at any time.
The impact of wearables
At the same time, wearable devices are working to chart the emergence and growth of viral outbreaks like COVID-19. Scripps Research Translational Institute has launched a national U.S. project – called DETECT – to gather data from smartwatches and activity trackers to analyze how activity, heart rate, sleep patterns and other connected health data can be integrated into a public health surveillance program.
Researchers are building off of the momentum of an earlier study, unveiled in January, which used data from roughly 50,000 Fitbit users to plot outbreaks of seasonal respiratory infections like the flu.
In that study, researchers found they could identify and possibly even anticipate an outbreak by the activities of Fitbit users who became sick. People who develop the flu, they noted, tend to have an elevated resting heart rate, sleep more and move around less. Clearly, an increase to wearable devices brings an increase to populace data — and such information could be vital in preventing the next health global pandemic.
Telehealth and beyond
From treatment to tracking, connected and wearable devices offer an exciting glimpse of tech applications in health. This is only furthered by the spike to telehealth, which is enabling many more people to be treated in the comfort of their own home for things they had previously only considered doing in person.
As a result of emergency U.S. government funding, virtual checkups are working to connect more patients with medical advice. Telehealth visits across the board were up 50 percent in March, by one measure, and are on track to hit 1 billion by the end of the year.
And not only does tech-backed medicine improve efficiency and convenience, but it boosts patient outcomes. For example, the U.S. national average for re-admission to hospitals within 30 days following a heart failure episode is 20%. Telehealth monitoring programs have reduced that level to less than 4%.
The “new normal” is certainly challenging, but adversity often gives way to innovation. Our collective effort to adapt is furthering the development of tech within health, and who knows what health capabilities could be waiting for us on the other side of this pandemic.