PALO ALTO, CA — Michael Snyder may be unique in that he can be found wearing three smartwatches at any given time. If one adds to the mix the Oura smart ring that can be found on the hand of Stanford’s director of genomics and personalized medicine, the amount of electronic tracking of his health is off the chart.
But could a smartwatch determine if a person has contracted the coronavirus? Snyder, for one, believes there is a very distinct possibility it can.
His hypothesis stems from the fact that, not long ago, Snyder used smartwatch technology to detect that he suffers from Lyme disease. Even before he showed symptoms, Snyder determine he was likely a candidate for the disease by relying on a reading that his pulse had dropped and that his heart rate had changed. The diagnosis was confirmed when he also experienced a rise in skin temperature.
Snyder now heads up a Stanford lab that is conducting the university’s Wearables Data Study, which is evaluating whether smartwatches may be able to provide early detection of the coronavirus before patients begin to experience symptoms.
So far, nine people who previously tested positive for the coronavirus have participated in the study, which is still in its infancy. Of the nine, data taken from their smartwatches showed that five demonstrated that they were ill before they showed symptoms associated with COVID-19. Two other subjects experienced a change in heart rate at the time they began experiencing symptoms, while the wearables failed to detect changes in the other two subjects.
In one case, Snyder and his colleagues noticed an increased heart rate 10 days before the person started experiencing symptoms associated with the coronavirus, which — if studied in real time — would have kept the coronavirus patient from coming into contact with others for 10 full days before they were diagnosed.
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Now, given the number of people who wear smartwatches, Snyder and his Stanford colleagues find themselves with a control group that one day could grow into millions of case studies, and the study could help detect illness before symptoms set in.
“We think this is a big deal,” Snyder told Patch on Thursday. “I know (the study) will work — what I don’t know is how well it will work.”
Snyder’s Stanford team does not yet know whether the data given off by smartwatches will allow them to detect the coronavirus specifically. Snyder is, however, confident that the study will be able to differentiate between bacterial infections and viral infections.
While the main factor is a change in heart rate, other measurables that some devices can detect — including skin temperature, blood oxygen levels and respiration — may help specify what kind of illness is coming.
All of the information used in the study is being derived from a number of wearables, each of which takes 250,000 measurements per day that can then be used to determine the level of health the wearer is experiencing. Snyder has partnered with Fitbit, which has approximately 30 million users; but the study also will involve other smartwatches, including Apple-made devices worn by tens of millions of users.
Snyder and his colleagues use such smartwatch measurements to monitor changes in people’s resting heart rate. Since beginning to study the connection between an increase in heart rate and illness, the Stanford lab’s testing has proved a predictor of illness, which has led to the current coronavirus study.
In the first part of the current study, scientists will work with subjects who have been ill and who wear smartwatches to determine exactly when illness was setting in even before symptoms were experienced. Of the nine coronavirus patients included in the study, family members of those infected wore smartwatches, which demonstrated a change in heart rate.
Once algorithms are tuned, the second phase of Snyder’s study which will involve Stanford scientists informing participants when they think subjects are getting sickness based on the data pulled from smartwatches. As soon as experts detect a change in baseline, they would be notified, informing them that Snyder’s team believes illness may be setting in.
Snyder hopes to include hundreds of people in the study, which he hopes will include subjects of varying ages, sexes and ethnic groups, allowing for a broad study of information. But as the pandemic continues and as the number of both confirmed cases and coronavirus deaths continue to mount, Snyder hopes his lab’s work will provide valuable information in the fight against the spread of the virus.