May 6, 2020 - Health

An experimental wearable device detects early coronavirus symptoms

Northwestern's COVID-19 diagnostic. Photo: Northwestern University

A new wearable device is capable of catching early signs and symptoms associated with COVID-19.

Why it matters: With tests still in too-short supply, any device that can clue doctors to an early COVID-19 case is welcome. And the combination of people staying home because of social distancing and the overwhelming threat of the disease makes home diagnostics even more important.

How it works: The experimental wearable device, which sits at the base of a patient's throat, was developed by researchers at Northwestern University and the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. It was initially meant to monitor speech patterns in stroke victims before it was reengineered for COVID-19, says Northwestern's John Rogers, who led the development.

  • Worn 24/7, the device detects coughing intensity and patterns, along with breathing sounds, heart rate and body temperature. The data is transmitted wirelessly to the cloud, where algorithms provide graphical representations that can be interpreted by physicians.
  • Rogers says about 25 people are currently wearing the devices, a mix of health care workers monitoring themselves for signs of COVID-19 and patients who have been sent home from hospitals and are being monitored remotely.

The new device joins an array of home diagnostics that have become suddenly popular during the pandemic, including pulse oximeters that can measure blood oxygenation levels — a vital sign for COVID-19 patients.

  • "The technology is here to take hospital ICU-grade diagnostics and deliver it to the home, to be worn on the skin for continuous health monitoring," says Rogers. "We think the pandemic will lead to a broader awareness of the value of this monitoring."
  • By one recent count, the market for connected medical diagnostics is expected to grow by an average of 25% a year between now and 2025. With companies like Amazon and Apple increasingly focusing on health diagnostics, "there is a huge opening for tech companies to do more of that work," futurist Amy Webb told me recently.

The bottom line: Health monitoring won't have to wait until your doctor is in.

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Why it matters: While machine learning algorithms were already becoming a part of health care, COVID-19 is likely to accelerate their adoption. But lack of data and testing time could hinder their effectiveness — for this pandemic, at least.

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Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios. This graphic includes "probable deaths" that New York City began reporting on April 14.

About 40.7 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the coronavirus pandemic began, including 2.1 million more claims filed from last week.

Why it matters: Even as states reopen their economies, Americans are still seeking relief. Revised data out Thursday also showed U.S. economy shrunk by an annualized 5% in the first quarter — worse than the initially estimate of 4.8%.

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CDC director Robert Redfield briefs reporters on April 8. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

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What they're saying: The agency explicitly warned against using antibody tests to determine whether someone should return to work or to group people within schools or prisons.