The sudden emergence of a novel coronavirus has left researchers and healthcare professionals scrambling to understand a virus that seems to present in new ways by the day. One thing that has been communicated with clarity is that those with certain underlying medical conditions, including chronic lung disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, are at a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19, the disease caused by the SARS-COV-2 coronavirus.
In cases where COVID-19 is diagnosed or suspected, instructions to stay home unless symptoms become severe have made the ability to closely monitor these symptoms vital. Headlines like “Should You Buy a Pulse Oximeter?” have made their way into newsfeeds, informing many not only of the availability of such sophisticated medical equipment over the counter ($30 from Walmart and conveniently linked in the aforementioned article), but also of the ability of personal health technology to monitor, understand and prevent disease.
Personal Health Technology & The IoMT
Since the dawn of the fitness activity tracker, personal or wearable health technology has evolved considerably to include a wide array of devices or applications that can monitor health outside of the clinical setting. Today, these technologies range from sensors that monitor vital signs to smart watches that purport to do everything from mapping your run to paying for groceries to measuring blood oxygen saturation.
Connected health devices present significant potential with regard to chronic disease management and the effort to improve population health. By monitoring patients in their daily lives, practitioners can conceivably intervene earlier — before a negative health event occurs — increasing the likelihood of a positive outcome. It all connects by way of the ethereal internet of things (IoT) — or medical things (IoMT) — devices that connect with the internet and each other to deliver real-time information to clinicians.
When underscored by artificial intelligence, IoMT devices become progressively smarter and better at understanding disease and identifying abnormalities — a characteristic that is being put to the test with the first wearable device to detect key symptoms of COVID-19. Developed by researchers at Northwestern University and Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago, the novel sensor sits at the base of the throat to detect coughing, breathing, heart rate or temperature irregularities that may indicate COVID-19. In addition to facilitating timely interventions and improving health outcomes, researchers are hopeful that the data they collect can help inform the efficacy of treatment options.
“A Check Engine Light”
One of the value propositions of internet-enabled health technology is the potential for early detection and prevention — picking up on warning signs before they become severe enough to warrant a doctor’s visit or, worse, an ER admission. In the midst of a pandemic especially, people are putting off necessary treatment for fear of contracting the virus or putting others at risk, a phenomenon that will undoubtedly have far-reaching public health implications of its own.
Harnessing these innovative tools to keep people safe while not neglecting care could influence the future of healthcare, especially as we enter what is likely be a much more virtual environment. While the coronavirus has taken the spotlight, there are a myriad of health issues that stand to be better managed or prevented through technology, including the very conditions that place people at a higher risk of severe outcomes of COVID-19.
Devices that monitor and communicate vital health data — body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugar, oxygen saturation and more — are advancing wearable technology far beyond a means of counting steps. Even Fitbit, arguably the pioneer of the fitness tracking movement, has been testing the ability of its devices to monitor heart rate and blood oxygen levels to detect warning signs of sleep apnea and atrial fibrillation. As Fitbit co-founder and chief technology officer Eric Friedman told FierceHealthcare, the device could serve as a “check engine light” signaling the need to seek medical care.
Keeping Connected; Keeping Healthy
The need to keep consumers connected to healthcare wherever they may be is becoming increasingly clear in the age of social distancing. If the shift to telehealth driven by the pandemic endures as experts expect it may, remote patient monitoring will all but certainly become fundamental to healthcare delivery and care management. With regard to personal health technology, regulatory and data security requirements will need to come into focus, but like so many emerging trends in healthcare, COVID-19 could drive a sooner-than-later outcome.