A pandemic’s influence on wearable technologies

Rajat Gupta, Associate Product Special - Sabre on COVID-19 and its impact on wearables

As the world heals from the coronavirus pandemic, there are lessons to be acquired for the future from nations who restrained the extent of the virus early on. South Korea’s two-faceted approach of Contact Tracing and Aggressive Testing to tackle the pandemic was remarkably successful in breaking the transmission chains.

As the wait for a permanent vaccine lingers on, there is no doubt that tracing and testing will be the norm for the foreseeable future in the fight against the spread of the virus. With technologies evolving and getting better with each passing day, is there a way to enhance or expedite the tracing and testing to aid in faster recovery?

A case for wearable technology in streamlining travel
A few years ago, the onset of wearables prompted the creation of the personal fitness bubble. And now, recent studies suggest that one out of five Americans wear some sort of a wearable either in the form of a smartwatch or a fitness tracker.

With the biomarkers in today’s wearables that can keep track of skin temperature, blood oxygen levels and heart rate – this technology has emerged as a goldmine of data; overflowing with valuable indicators aiding healthcare researchers worldwide.

As billions are being spent by private corporations and government-funded studies on the development of solutions for the masses, wearables – due to their durability and adaptability – have already taken the top spot for the hardware in which the niche algorithms are being coded.

Wearable technology has enabled millions worldwide to stay healthy and track their fitness goals during the lockdown period. The rise in turn has led to an abundance of individuals contributing to the research studies. This myriad data from good Samaritans has allowed researchers to identify patterns between biomarkers and positivity for the virus. In some cases, wearables have been designed to even foretell if a person has the virus three days in advance.

The adoption of wearables in travel industry can allow for enhancing customers experience further. For example, airports can make use of smart bands to warn travelers regarding congestion in the waiting area, boarding gates or security line using in-built GPS chips at airport shops thereby empowering passengers to safely practice social distancing.

Also, the wearables can further encourage cashless transactions optimizing the payment experience. This would further lead to reducing queues at various shops at airports with transactions being carried out using NFC chips built into the wearables.

Wearables and the COVID-19
While currently, wearables are becoming mainstream when it comes to fitness, the adoption of wearables in niche industries such as travel has endured a sluggish rise. Healthcare professionals have usually been the first to test out innovative wearable technologies. And this is where we have seen the origination and adoption of throat sensors to effectively monitor coughs, fever and respiratory activity allowing real-time monitoring of symptoms.

Football clubs have long been using wearable vests which have permitted the management to track fitness levels and distance statistics as the vests contain a GPS tracker. This has also facilitated the clubs to generate proximity reports which can showcase how long two players have been near their teammates while also allowing the club to conduct contact tracing in case a player tests positive for COVID-19.

Even basketball teams have come up with reforms for their athletes which involves players in the NBA to wear smart rings manufactured by Oura Health. The ring, to be worn by the players at all times, is a powerful tool for early discovery of COVID-19 symptoms. These data are early proof points of wearables playing a key role in early detection and containment of COVID -19 like symptoms in future.

Roadblocks in wearables adoption
While the advantages of wearables are multi-faceted, sharing of private data for healthcare monitoring involves privacy concerns for anyone involved. The current laws seem murky for users of health monitoring devices. Furnishing personal information to wearable manufacturers who manage a centralized database seems risky.

The major apprehensions here are mostly regarding the broadcast of personal information and the risk of one’s data being sold to third-party vendors or even made public.

Also, there are many risks involved in technologies that are in the early stages of mass adoption. In case of wearables, apart from the glaring GDPR compliance risks, ‘false positives’ are also something to be watched out for. False positive in case of COVID-19 would be when a device raises alerts indicating positivity towards the flu while in reality, the user would not be showing any symptoms of the same. This would create undesired panic and anxiety.

Therefore, it is essential for wearable technology being used in the healthcare ecosystem to be trustworthy and accurate. This could also be done by eventually furnishing more robust biomarkers that reduces the occurrence of false positives. An alternate viewpoint could be achieving integration of on-demand guidance from experts as soon as possible to confirm/deny the false-positivity suggested by the wearable.

A promising future?
While COVID-19 has wreaked havoc in 2020, it has also paved the path for wearable technology to improve. It has allowed critics who had been doubting the potential of this technology by conclusively providing support. To extract this potential to enhance the products, there is need for enormous efforts, especially in terms of increasing the frequency and amount of testing.

The biomarkers need to be more sophisticated; power consumption needs to be minimized and connectivity must be improved. Only then, will wearable technology exemplify the proactive predictive healthcare of the future that is coveted by individuals around the world.

(Rajat Singh is Associate Product Specialist – Sabre. The views expressed in this article are of the author).

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