Can wearable tech predict COVID-19 and reveal how pandemics affect us?

University of Sydney researchers have joined an international US-led effort to discover if data from wearable tech like smartwatches and activity trackers could provide an early indication of COVID-19, as well as examine how pandemics change our lives.

Early detection is critical for effective public health responses to infectious disease outbreaks and there is early evidence that wearables have the potential to help predict the onset of such illness before symptoms appear.

The DETECT Australia study will determine if changes to an individual’s heart rate, physical activity or sleep tracked through wearable devices could provide an early indication of influenza-like illness, including COVID-19. DETECT will also help determine how mental health and behaviours like exercise, diet, sleep, and alcohol intake vary during pandemics.

The study is part of a research consortium initiated by Scripps Research, Fitbit and Stanford Medicine in the United States aimed at using data from Fitbit and other wearables to help detect, track and contain infectious diseases like COVID-19.

Australian project lead Professor Emmanuel Stamatakis from the University of Sydney said the study builds on a growing body of research exploring the potential of personalised health data.

“Wearable devices objectively track so many elements of our daily lives – from our step count and heart rate to our sleep. What we aim to find out here is if these measures could be used for early detection of illnesses like the flu or COVID-19, potentially even before people are diagnosed,” said Stamatakis, Professor of Physical Activity, Lifestyle and Population Health from the Charles Perkins Centre and Faculty of Medicine and Health.

“Research by our DETECT collaborators in the US has shown data from such devices can identify subtle changes, particularly to heart rate variation, that can improve prediction for influenza-like illness”.

The possibilities this presents for us to understand the impact of people’s daily habits on their health and to encourage change are only just beginning to be realised.

Professor Emmanuel Stamatakis

Fitbit will support the Australian arm of study by helping to drive consumer awareness of the research and offering its users the opportunity to participate in the study.

“We are proud to continue to support this important study as it expands to Australia with a credible institution like the University of Sydney,” said Steve Morley, Vice President International Health Solutions & GM Asia Pacific at Fitbit.

“As the fight against the global pandemic persists and evolves, studies like these which bring together the global scientific research community, as well as active participation from consumers, will play a key role in advancing our ability to detect and have early understanding of infectious diseases such as COVID-19.”

When participants choose to opt into the study and download the MyDataHelps app, the app draws data from their wearable activity devices such as Fitbit, Apple Watch or Garmin watch. These data will allow researchers to explore trends in heart rate, step count and sleep during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Participants will also be asked to complete surveys throughout the study with questions regarding health, activity, lifestyle and mental health.

This allows researchers to also monitor potential changes in participant’s health behaviour, and physical and mental health status during the COVID-19 pandemic and other influenza-like illness outbreaks.

“While the main impetus for this specific study has been the large potential of wearables in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, DETECT Australia also explores trends in other aspects of health and lifestyle such as physical activity, sleep and diet and their impact on health and mental wellbeing,” said Professor Stamatakis.

“The possibilities this presents for us to understand the impact of people’s daily habits on their health and to encourage change are only just beginning to be realised.”

DETECT Australia’s MyDataHelps app also allows participants to receive the most recent public health policies and health events drawn from sources such as the Australian Government Department of Health.

The researchers hope participants will choose to remain in the study for a few years to maximise the potential of the research.

How to get involved:

The DETECT Australia study is open to participants 18 years or over living anywhere within Australia who use a smartphone and a connected wearable smartwatch or activity tracker. These include devices such as Fitbit, Apple Watch, Garmin, Amazefit, OURA, Beddit or others that can share data with Google Fit (if you are using an Android phone) or Apple HealthKit (if you are using an iPhone).

Participation in the study is voluntary and participants can leave the study at any time. The app offers all participants the opportunity to invite others by using the “Share DETECT” function.

Visit https://detectstudy.org/au/ for further details, or simply download the MyDataHelps app from the Google Play Store or Apple App Store.


Declaration:

The DETECT (Digital Engagement & Tracking for Early Control & Treatment) Study: The Australian Component is run by the researchers from the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre and has ethics approval from the University of Sydney (2020/518). There is no industry funding tied to the Australian study and the chief investigators declare no competing interests. Scripps Research developed the initial app-based study in partnership with CareEvolution, a health technology company that facilitates the storage and sharing of clinical health information.

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