Pandemic spurs the use of wearables, but have they been a benefit?

wearable pandemic
Wearable technology isometric flowchart. Image by Macrovector | Bigstockphoto

The COVID-19 pandemic has been significant for wearable devices. They have helped to detect early COVID-19 symptoms, and they have also helped people live healthier lives and take care of their wellbeing during the pandemic. The last 12 months have been a good time for many digital services, from video conferences to food delivery apps. Maybe it will permanently change how we manage our wellness and health and help mobile healthcare become mainstream.

Higher resting heart rate and body temperature are early signs of COVID. For example, research institutes and universities have developed software to use Oura ring data to detect these early symptoms. Employers have also bought wearable devices for employees to detect early symptoms and warn them not to work if there are warning signs. This is the case in companies from customer and health care services to professional sports teams.

Wearable manufacturers have reported that, based on their data, the COVID situation has also helped some people sleep better. The reason might be that people don’t need to hurry to work and take the kids to school in the morning. But we have also seen, as the situation continues, more people feel stress, i.e. based on data, have a higher heart rate (HR) and don’t sleep as well.

The situation has also changed exercising habits. People don’t walk to work or take public transportation, no daily breaks to go for lunch or coffee. Health professionals are worried people are sitting too much during the pandemic. Others have started to exercise more, not daily walks but daily runs. This has resulted in more sports injuries.

All this has prompted people to monitor their daily wellness and health data. People have also hesitated to see a doctor or go to the hospital but monitored their health with a smartwatch to measure heart rate or ECG (electrocardiogram). And if you have a Zoom call with your doctor, it is actually useful that you have that data at hand (so to speak). 

This all demonstrates that people have started to use more of these devices and are getting more data, but it’s not that simple. What should I interpret from my heart rate or heart rate variability? Do I exercise too little or too much? Is my sleep quality and exercising linked to each other? What is the data combination that really indicates some illness?

When people get more data, it doesn’t mean they suddenly become health, sleep, diet and wellness experts. Some people might feel so when they Google health care instructions, but it can make things worse. This data can be beneficial for health and wellness monitoring, but it needs better software to analyze it or make it available for professionals. 

Mobile healthcare has been a hot topic for years, but COVID time has really brought it to the fore. Healthcare organizations tend to be rather conservative in taking on new things, but this period has forced them to find new solutions quickly. I know many mobile healthcare startups that have struggled for years. One big problem has been that healthcare organizations move slowly, making them difficult customers for agile startups. The other problem is getting access to reliable and accurate data. Many of those companies have offered solutions to transfer data to a doctor or hospital, but often people have to capture the data themselves, e.g. measure their glucose, blood pressure, heart rate and enter it into an app. Some people find this challenging, and others are just too lazy to do it.  And there are those who might want to ‘fix’ their own numbers to either avoid embarrassment or show off.

So, now we have more data, and we have solutions to transfer the data. But we still have a couple of problems: 1) privacy and data security for sensitive wellness data, and 2) more systematic models to utilize data, not only from one but several wearable devices. This means we need solutions to collect and combine data from several devices, combine that data and at the same time protect privacy. It would also help if this data could be combined in the future with other health care data like health history.

With new technology and concepts, it typically takes years to make the breakthrough. It often also needs some special triggers to get things to happen. I remember the first great mobile health tech visions 20 years ago with 3G hype. Now it looks like the pandemic has helped us over some major obstacles, and the wearable market has also developed rapidly. We should now see rapid and significant development with more applications and services using wellness data more effectively, with a subsequent boost to mobile healthcare.

Related article: Advances in wearables for the hand point the way to the future

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