5 Key wearables helping in the fight against COVID-19

f anything positive is to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the evolution and enhancements to medical technology. Wearable technology in particular has been at the forefront of fighting COVID-19 and has emphasised its almost hesitant adoption by the public versus its popularity in the medical industry. This article highlights some of those medical devices and how they are being used in the medical/healthcare industry to help fight against COVID-19. 

TraceTogether Tokens 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries have been working towards a contact tracing application system that can help save lives by notifying the public when they may have come into contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. These type of applications rely almost solely on the use of mobile devices such as smartphones. Whilst this is great and millions of people with smartphones can benefit, it also risks alienating the elderly, who are not as tech-savvy as the younger generation. This can be problematic when trying to protect the target group of the most vulnerable people, which in the case of COVID-19 is the elderly. 

In Singapore, the developers of the application “TraceTogether” address this issue. They identified that elderly citizens are more socially active outside of their homes, and tried to come up with a way to encourage this whilst still keeping them safe. Before introducing the trace system, the public had to provide stores with their ID cards to be scanned to enter. While required, this approach was very problematic for stores as it led to huge queues, preventing foot traffic flow and putting off some citizens from entering the store altogether. 

The solution to this problem was using Bluetooth low-energy technology – the same technology that is being used in Test and Trace systems around the world in smartphones. In this particular case in Singapore, the TraceTogether program developed a lanyard that included a Bluetooth low-energy token with a QR code on the reverse side and a battery life of up to nine months. 

The device works by exchanging Bluetooth signals with other nearby TraceTogether tokens or smartphones running the TraceTogether App. Users are alerted by a contact tracing officer if they are detected to have been near someone infected with COVID-19. 

Like many public services, TraceTogether encountered some initial hesitation from citizens due to data privacy. However, the Singapore government stated that any data collected by these devices would be encrypted and kept within the token for a maximum of 25 days. 

NASA JPL Pulse Pendant 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the message has been clear: social distance, wear a mask, wash your hands and avoid touching your face. If you think about your daily activities, the places you go and the things you touch, you will come to realise the number of germs and bacteria you are exposed to, and at this time the COVID-19 virus that may be lurking. For most of us, it is second nature to touch our faces or masks, and we may not even realise we are doing it. 

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) has come up with a low-cost DIY solution to this problem in the form of a pendant that you wear around your neck called PULSE. PULSE is a 3D-printed wearable device that pulses or vibrates when a person’s hand is nearing their face. The haptic feedback from a small vibration motor simulates a reminder to the wearer to avoid touching their face and potentially infecting themselves. PULSE is a simple open-source and affordable solution to this problem and can be easily reproduced by anyone, regardless of their expertise. A list of STL 3D printed parts is available along with assembly instructions on their GitHub page

PULSE is made up of the following components: 

  • 3D-printed case 
  • Infrared proximity sensor 
  • Coin vibration motor 
  • Tactile slide switch 
  • 3V battery and holder 


The PULSE pendant is worn 6-12 inches below the chin when attached with a lanyard or necklace. When the wearer’s hand approaches their face, the movement is detected, and the vibrating motor is activated. As the hand gets closer, the response becomes stronger. PULSE can be seamlessly integrated into everyday life as people start returning to work. It’s a great simple solution for everyone, designed with simple skills and low-cost components. 

Fitbit Fitness trackers 

The biggest challenge in wearable tech in healthcare is convincing users to share their data and have it analysed by an AI system.  Other challenges in this industry are the reliability and accuracy of sensors. There could be serious consequences, or worse, fatalities if the device is faulty or sends out false alarms. This challenge will ultimately come down to the quality and testing as well as applying industry certification. 

Nearly all wearable fitness companies such as Apple, Google, Garmin, Fitbit, TomTom and Polar collect user data. This data includes the personal information you give when you sign up to these services and the tracking data from the wearable devices’ sensors. In the early stages of data collection, this was thought to be used as a basis for marketing material to promote new products and to determine new fitness trends. Data collection is a huge asset for any company and adds tremendous marketing value. Until recently, this type of data hadn’t been used with the end-user in mind, other than having the ability to track their activities. 

Now we see companies analysing users’ medical data to prevent the spread of illness, alerting end-users to a potential threat to their health, in some cases without any initial symptoms. Just recently in August 2020, FitBit produced a case study around COVID-19 to see if they could use Fitbit devices to detect the virus in its early stages, thus preventing the spread and protecting loved ones. Their study was aimed at creating an algorithm to detect COVID-19 before initial symptoms started. The program had over 100,000 users enrolled in the USA and Canada. 

Based on the case study findings, Fitbit detected 50% of COVID-19 cases 1 day before the user experienced symptoms. This is vital information because, as we know, users can transmit the virus before showing symptoms or in some cases don’t experience symptoms at all. 

Sharing user data between research companies could be pivotal in understanding the symptoms and severity of new viruses or illnesses and validating the use of wearable technology. It is, however, also a sensitive subject due to data protection laws. The case study by Fitbit was an opt-in program and was completely anonymous. The only data being recorded was the sensor data from the heart rate sensor. If companies like FitBit can use and analyse data like this in a positive way, then it should encourage more people to participate in research programs and become more comfortable with sharing data. 

Chairless Chair 

There is no doubt that the coronavirus has been putting great strain on national health services: doctors and nurses are working at maximum capacity with reduced staff. This was one issue identified by the European Union, along with demographic change and workforce ageing. This is a challenge across most sectors but has recently been highlighted through the health service, where employees spend most of their time on their feet moving between patients. 

Noonee was founded in 2014 as a spin-off from the robotics lab at ETH Zurich to address this issue and come up with a solution. Noonee’s first product, the Chairless Chair, directly addresses workers’ physical needs in the manufacturing and processing industries. It provides lower back support to workers that normally stand all day long and sometimes have to get into awkward positions. The Chairless Chair was specifically tailored to fit those workers’ needs in usability, health benefits and user acceptance whilst helping companies maximise cost savings related to sick or absent workers as well as fluctuating performance. 

Vital Connect Cardiac Monitoring 

COVID-19 has been a burden on many healthcare systems and their workers. Doctors and nurses as well as other front line service workers still need to have face-to-face contact with the public. This is crucial as COVID-19 patients admitted to hospitals need their vitals taken regularly to monitor their progress and health. However, it puts front line healthcare workers at elevated risk of catching the virus and could lead to staff self-isolating at home  or suffering worse consequences from the virus. This only adds to the great strain and workload in hospitals. 

Vital Connect provides a solution in the form of a Vital Patch, which has been given emergency FDA approval. VitalPatch is a disposable adhesive wearable that can be used for seven days straight. It can track eight vital signs in real-time, such as single-lead ECG, heart rate and heart rate variability, activity and respiratory rate. All this can be tracked within the hospital or at home, significantly reducing face-to-face contact with patients. 

COVID-19 presents a myriad of symptoms and clinicians need access to medical devices that allow them to monitor and manage those symptoms in real-time to create the most appropriate treatment plans for each individual.

Dr Joe Roberson, CMO of VitalConnect

Summary

Here we have highlighted just 5 top wearables helping the fight against COVID-19 and there are many more out there thanks to the innovation of technology. I think over the course of the next 5 years or so we will see an increase in the adoption of healthcare wearables. COVID-19 has been a great at highlighting the need for wearable devices in hospitals and should be rolled out to other healthcare professions throughout the national health system including care homes and patients’ homes too.

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