Health Watch: How smart watches could detect signs of illness

Health Watch: How smart watches could detect signs of illness

Smart watches and other biosensors enable the wearer to count their steps and track their sleep, but have not generally been used to detect illness. In a new study, Xiao Li, Jessilyn Dunn and Denis Salins at Stanford University, USA, and colleagues followed 60 people through their everyday lives and found that smart watches and other personal biosensor devices can help flag when people have colds and even signal the onset of complex conditions such as Lyme disease.

The researchers took advantage of the portability and ease of using wearable devices to take physiological measurements such as heart rate and skin temperature from participants continuously for up to two years. They found that deviations from participants’ normal baselines often coincided with times when people became ill – for example, heart rate and skin temperature tended to rise at these times. The study authors wrote a software program, “Change of Heart,” to detect these deviations and to sense when people are becoming sick, for example when contracting the common cold.

Following a long tradition of scientific self-experimentation, the study’s lead author, Michael Snyder, participated in the study and wore a smart watch and an oxygen sensor to track his own physiology. As it turned out, this came in useful.

“I had elevated heart rate and decreased oxygen at the start of my vacation and knew something was not quite right,” said Snyder. After running a slight fever for several days, Snyder visited a physician, and subsequent tests confirmed that he had contracted Lyme disease. In a coincidental proof-of-concept, the devices had successfully detected early signs of illness in Snyder himself.

This research paves the way for the smartphone to serve as a health dashboard, monitoring health and sensing early signs of illness, likely even before the person wearing it does. “The information collected could aid your physician, although we can expect some initial challenges in how to integrate the data into clinical practice,” said Snyder. “For example, patients may want to protect the privacy of their physiologic data or may want to share only some of it … However, in the long-term I am very optimistic that personal biosensors will help us maintain healthier lives.”

Research Article: Li X, Dunn J, Salins D, Zhou G, Zhou W, Schüssler-Fiorenza Rose SM, et al. (2017) Digital Health: Tracking Physiomes and Activity Using Wearable Biosensors Reveals Useful Health-Related Information. PLoS Biol 15(1): e2001402. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.2001402

Image Credit: C_osett


Beth works at PLOS as Journal Media Manager. She read Natural Sciences, specializing in Pathology, at the University of Cambridge before joining PLOS in 2013. She feels fortunate to be able to read and write about the exciting new research published by PLOS.

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