Feb 22, 2021 - Health

Fitbit CEO: Wearables can detect COVID and more


Fitbit started out trying to make us healthier by making us take a few extra steps. Now such wearables can help detect diseases like COVID-19 and even spot signs of depression, CEO James Park told "Axios on HBO."

Why it matters: Early detection is important for a range of health conditions, but especially so with communicable diseases like the flu or COVID-19.

Early studies show that, used in combination and over time, such sensors can be as effective as standard questions in evaluating whether someone is showing signs of depression.

And with COVID-19, Park says, a new algorithm was able to use Fitbit data, including heart rate fluctuations, to spot the disease a day or two before symptoms appear.

  • That may not sound like a lot, Park said, but "it's pretty profound in the sense that if you could tell people one to two days before that they should start self-quarantining, that could actually have a pretty meaningful impact on the spread of the disease."
  • Other companies, including smart ring maker Oura, are also studying ways their data can be used to detect COVID-19.

The big picture: Park acknowledged that spotting diseases was not part of his initial plan, but said that as the company has added sensors over the years, its products have gained new uses.

  • In addition to tracking steps, Fitbit's newest devices can track body temperature, oxygen levels and even measure stress.

Between the lines: Fitbit itself is changing too, having recently become part of Google. Even though Fitbit sits on a trove of health data, including 14 years of Park's own health data, Park said he trusts the company to stick to the privacy protections Fitbit has promised as well as Google's pledges not to use health data for advertising purposes.

  • "That was, you know, one of the key things in our conversations with Google that led us to ultimately agree to the merger," Park said.
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