As the world continues to battle against the global COVID-19 pandemic, technology has had an important role to play, particularly with work-from-home arrangements in place for many workers. Now, the health monitoring aspect of smartwatches is coming under the spotlight, with new research showing that the Apple Watch can be used to detect COVID-19—sometimes, before an individual even knows that he/she is infected.
Most smartwatches, of course, come with heart rate tracking capabilities as a bare minimum, and the Apple Watch series isn’t any different. According to researchers over at Mount Sinai Health System, “subtle changes” in your heartbeat can be used to signal the onset of COVID-19 ahead of time. The key term here is heart rate variability (HRV), which is the variation in time in between heartbeats.
“A way to identify people who might be sick even before they know they are infected”
297 health workers at the Mount Sinai Health System were studied for a period of five months, with a customised app on their iPhones providing information for researchers. The HRV readings of each worker was used to predict COVID-19 infection, with the study showing that the significant HRV changes can be a sign of COVID-19 ahead of a nasal swab test.
According to the study’s corresponding author, Robert P. Hirten, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine (Gastroenterology) at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, this is particularly important in the case of asymptomatic patients:
“Developing a way to identify people who might be sick even before they know they are infected would really be a breakthrough in the management of COVID-19. One of the challenging things about COVID-19 is that many people are asymptomatic, meaning they have no symptoms but are still contagious. This makes it difficult to contain this infection by using the traditional method of identifying someone who is sick and quarantining them.”
HRV metrics are already known to be a marker for inflammation within the body, and COVID-19’s inflammatory effect means that 24/7 heart rate monitoring—even on an Apple Watch—can allow predictions of positive (and sometimes asymptomatic) cases. In fact, over half of positive cases are reportedly spread by carriers who display no symptoms, indicative of a very important issue.
It’s worth noting that the Apple Watch is not the only smartwatch that can do this. As mentioned above, most (if not all) wearables can track your heart rate, although accuracy may differ between models and makes. However, the study discussed in this article only covers data garnered from the Apple Watch.
This isn’t the first time we’re hearing about this. Apple CEO Tim Cook discussed the potential of the study during the last Apple event in 2020, and California-based startup Evidation Health earlier said that the Apple Watch could be used as an early warning system for COVID-19. Regardless, the latest study from Mount Sinai shows that technology can—and must—be included in the ongoing fight against the pandemic.
And smartwatches such as the Apple Watch, which is often worn all day by users—can play an important role in that.
The information in this article is based on a study by the Mount Sinai Health System, which you can read in full here.