Can This New Wearable Help Identify COVID-19 Faster?

January 28, 2021 - 7 minutes read

A new wearable promises to track your temperature throughout the day as an early-warning detection system for COVID-19, infection from something else, or a general health problem. The wearable, a ring named Oura after the Finnish medical development company who created it, compares your temperature in real-time to your average temperature for that time of day. Research recently published in the Scientific Reports journal indicates that smart devices and wearables might be feasible to use in continuous temperature monitoring.

This technology, the research theorizes, could be used to monitor COVID-19 to food poisoning and have benefits for public health overall. The study analyzed data from more than 50 COVID-19 survivors who consistently wore the Oura ring. The data stems from a larger study, called TemPredict, that followed over 65,000 people who wore the Oura ring.

What the Research Shows

According to Benjamin Smarr, the research paper’s author and a professor in Bioengineering at UC San Diego, the Oura ring has massive potential to become part of a larger effort for public health officials to spot where illnesses are spreading throughout the country or across the world. The goal for the research group was to develop an algorithm for the ring’s data that could detect early symptoms of COVID-19, like fatigue, fever, and cough. Essentially, Smarr says, the ring offers a “smart, relatively real-time fever detection system.”

The ring monitors several metrics, like your level of activity, heart rate, body temperature, and respiratory rate. Not many wearables on the market today monitor all four of these metrics. Smarr says that Oura was chosen as a collaborator because the company encourages public researchers to access and use data for analysis from Oura ring users who have previously consented.

The researchers found that 76% of the subjects said they had a fever as part of their COVID-19 symptoms, which aligns with the national average of patients who report having a fever during their COVID-19 infection. According to the study, a majority of the subjects had abnormal body temperature before other COVID-19 symptoms developed, leading to the conclusion that body temperature could predict an illness.

A Safer, More Reliable Way

During the pandemic, checking temperatures has become a common method to check for early signs of infection. Schools, stores, restaurants, and public transport systems have checked children and adults for abnormal body temperature. This method involves comparing each person’s body temperature to the broader population’s average temperature or a previously-determined threshold. The temperature checks are often only conducted once per day per person, which can greatly affect the efficacy of checking temperatures in the first place.

Because blood flow varies throughout the day (causing changes in body temperature from hour to hour), testing a person once during the day is less reliable than a temperature monitoring system. The beauty of the Oura ring’s temperature measurement is that it compares your body temperature to your body’s temperature historically, which introduces more reliability and accuracy. For example, the clinical temperature for fever is 100.3 degrees Fahrenheit, but some people run hotter than others, and the clinical definition of fever doesn’t account for fevers for everyone.

An Early-Warning System

The Oura ring allows researchers to see signs of illness with its sensor data, even for people who are asymptomatic and show no signs of malaise. Smarr also says that the Oura ring can be used to track other health conditions, like the flu and food poisoning. Albert Titus, a professor in biomedical engineering at the University of Buffalo, says it’s useful for people to know their body temperature fluctuation throughout the day.

If your body temperature is abnormally high for that time of day, you may need to look at other health metrics to figure out the cause. It may also lead you to make an appointment with your physician for a check-up and testing, making it a dependable early-warning system for illness. Titus, who wasn’t involved in the study, says, “The value is in the trends in combination with other data and information that makes this potentially useful while recognizing that at this point it’s also not diagnostic of a particular disease, but indicative of an overall health change.” While the wearable alerts its wearer to a possible problem, it’s up to the wearer to find help and gather more information about what could be wrong.

Ongoing Analysis

The authors of the paper stress that their research is a jumping-off point for more in-depth research and is, for now, a “proof of concept”. Some areas where future research could focus on is diversity: of the 50 subjects studied, 81% were white, which is not nearly diverse enough to form general conclusions. For future efforts, a more diverse pool of subjects will be necessary. Smarr adds that it is imperative that we develop technology for everyone in society, not just “wealthy people of means”.

medical app developer

The research should also be expanded socioeconomically. Wearables are expensive and require a smartphone to manage, so the technology is not equally accessible to everyone in a population. Titus says wearables research can skew towards those who can afford it or are interested in gadgets overall.

Sharing Data

This study was possible only because Oura was open to sharing its wearers’ data with researchers. To further research in this area and understand how we can make wearables work for us, it’s important for other wearable companies to share data with researchers and scientists. This requires user trust and consent, which is valuable and not easily earned. But Smarr hopes that larger wearables companies will eventually understand the impact their users’ data could make on medical research and development.

Do you have a temperature-monitoring wearable? Have you found any abnormalities in your body temperature that led to a diagnosis? Let us know in the comments below!

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