How wearable technology could help fight Covid-19

Dr Nigel Whittle, Head of Healthcare & Medical at technology consultancy Plextek explores how advances in health sensing and monitoring tech could help with remote care for those in self isolation or vulnerable situations.

Coronavirus has taken us all by surprise, with many parts of the world in or heading into virtual lockdown. Can developments in tech and healthcare devices now come into their own and help us fight back against the current crisis?

We are only too aware that early detection is absolutely key to monitoring the spread of disease and ultimately improving survival rates, so how can these developments in devices come into play, now so desperately needed?

MORE ON THE ENGINEERING RESPONSE TO COVID-19 HERE 

Whereas popular wearable health devices, such as Fitbits and Garmins, are very effective at monitoring a range of accessible physiological parameters including heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, sleep, movement and even oxygen saturation levels; they produce a distinct lack of actionable information. It is only when this data is combined and cross-referenced that we are able to build a more complete profile of our overall health.

wearble tech Covid-19

This integrated approach to health monitoring and measurement can also provide more accurate alerts to anomalous physiological changes, which can potentially identify deteriorating health or the onset of a serious medical problem – which is what we are seeing now.  After all, general well-being is the most effective way of measuring the onslaught of illnesses which can have a multitude of different symptoms.

Most serious clinical diagnostic procedures require deeper analyses, such as biochemical analysis of blood chemistry, or identification of marker molecules that are predictive of disease. So, if we can start to access that information non-intrusively, the benefits could have a profound impact on disease outcomes.

The current state of play

When it comes to general health monitoring, we are already seeing where technology is making an important contribution. For example, MonitorMe from Sanandco, developed with the help of Plextek, is a simple but reliable physiological monitoring system, which reports directly to a health provider or care body. Sanandco are currently awaiting regulatory approval for medical use of their device but options remain open for release of the device as a well-being product to help people look after themselves at home.

 “Poor health may be inevitable at some stage, but managing this period through early intervention leading to rapid diagnosis and treatment can minimise the severity of the condition, making hospital stays less likely and shorter” Julian Holmes, CEO, Sanandco

And while the popularity of existing consumer wearables has waned, going forward we are likely to see more integration with the ability to offer more effective health advisory alerts and sync to other clinical diagnostic apps.

Plextek is assisting in exploring areas of innovation, such as the development of a non-invasive device for measuring fluctuating glucose levels in patients’ blood, which uses electrical field sensors.

Plextek has explored the use of electrical field sensors to measure fluctuating glucose levels in patients’ blood for development of a non-invasive glucose monitor.

Accurate non-invasive procedures are the holy grail here and would have a profound effect on the lives of those with diabetes, an underlying health condition which has been flagged up as a concern when it comes to COVID-19.

Another company developing non-invasive tests is Owlstone Medical, which has developed breath biopsy technology to obtain deep biochemical information from patients. It has developed and refined detection devices to identify Volatile Organic Compounds from samples of our breath that may indicate underlying diseases and therefore if someone is at more risk from the virus.

Challenges in this field include the reliance on the detection of key biomarkers for the diagnosis and prognosis of underlying health issues. Innovative ways of measuring and monitoring these molecules through advancing technologies could well lead to improved early detection rates for a whole range of diseases, impacting significantly on survival rates.

The time is now

Putting extreme pressure on the NHS at this time is one of our medical professionals and politicians’ biggest fears.

There are a range of technologies that could be adopted quite rapidly to assist in the fight against Covid-19. Just think of the potential of apps to report on daily health, to track and trace infected people and identify their contacts, to provide information about symptoms and treatment options. Some of these options may of course require changes in our attitude to privacy, but that may be a small price to pay for peace of mind. It may be possible that drones could be fitted with thermal cameras to detect and monitor infected individuals going forward.

As it stands, elsewhere in terms of technology it’s going to be the next five to 10 years when we see the increasing integration of unobtrusive physiological monitoring systems, perhaps based around relatively few core integrators such as the Apple Watch or Amazon Alexa. The information could then be used to trigger alerts to potential illnesses and allow for detailed investigation. As a result, an increasing amount of diagnosis is then likely to be performed remotely, in parallel with the increased usage of medical diagnostic apps. In turn, this could go on to increase the remoteness of physicians from their patients, allowing them to reach more specialists worldwide and domestically reduce the burden on outpatient departments in hospitals, for example.

Right now, the opportunities to obtain early information could be outweighed by an increased burden generated by the ‘worried well’ and people’s general disposition to panic. An increased capacity for detailed health monitoring could put additional strain on the health service in terms of front end diagnosis and an increased use of medical facilities – which is something we all need to try to avoid at this moment in time.

Dr Nigel Whittle has more than 20 years’ experience in the medical and pharmaceutical sector and is a leading authority in wearable technology, biotechnology and digital health.