Smartwatch health data might be able to predict viral infections

The spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus has sent many researchers from various fields looking for ways to quickly detect health conditions. Not meant to replace health care professionals, these tools and methods would at least help triage potential candidates for further testing and keep the health care system from getting too overwhelmed. One problem with detecting illnesses is that not all of them show visible symptoms until it's too late. That's why Stanford University and Fitbit are looking for ways to detect potential sickness by looking at the same health cues that smartwatches already track.

Viral infections may hide their presence from the naked eye but they can't really full your body. Even if you yourself don't feel its effects, our immune system is constantly fighting these harmful invaders. That battle may not be felt or seen at a glance but their effects on your overall biometrics can be actually be tracked by our wearable devices.

Working together with Fitbit and Scripps Research, Stanford Medicine researchers are conducting tests that will correlate data measured by smartwatches and fitness trackers with viral infection. The theory is that when the immune system is acting up, like in the case of a viral infection, body measurements like skin temperature and heart rate also spike up. This can be particularly useful in asymptomatic cases like those from positive COVID-19 patients that never showed visible signs of infection.

Smartwatches and fitness trackers take measurements in hundreds of thousands per day, making them a treasure trove of data for algorithms to feed on. The study, headed by Stanford professor Michael Snyder, is collecting data from a wide range of wearable devices, even including the odd smart ring. Fitbit plans to augment that with a donation of 1,000 smartwatches.

Of course, these algorithms, if successful and accurate, still won't take the place of professional testing but they could alert wearers to possible early signs of infection. The Apple Watch, after all, has become famous for saving lives by warning users about heart problems they never even knew they had.