Can an Apple Watch help manage ‘Long COVID’?

Digital health is person-centered, remote, and makes use of wearable sensors and technologies to enable a new approach to primary care. Fresh research involving 37,000 people gives us another insight into how this should work.

Sensors, smartwatch and symptoms

Scientists from the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California recently published a studyDigital Engagement and Tracking for Early Control and Treatment (DETECT) — that looked at 37,000 people wearing an Apple Watch, Fitbit, or other wearables. Research last year showed Apple Watch helps more accurately detect the symptoms of COVID-19; now it seems it can also help manage the condition called “Long COVID.”

“Wearable devices provide a way to continuously track an individual’s physiological and behavioral metrics beginning when healthy (ie, before infection), during the course of infection, and recovery back to baseline,” the authors wrote. They found wearables could identify some of the warning signs of the condition, including a tendency for heart rates to remain much higher than normal post-COVID.

Scientists were also able to see that people suffering from Long COVID developed measurable sleep problems and saw a long-term decline in activity levels. “The researchers identified a small subset of people with Covid whose heart rates remained more than five beats per minute above normal one to two months after infection,” reported the New York Times.

“Nearly 14% of those with the disease fell into this category, and their heart rates did not return to normal for more than 133 days, on average.”

Implications in healthcare

The research isn’t definitive and doesn’t mean sufferers of chronic conditions such as Long COVID can expect to be given wearable devices to monitor their conditions. But it seems reasonably credible to believe the sensors on these things can play a part in long-term patient care for any condition.

This is certainly one of the strategies Apple is pursuing in digital health — and there’s a great deal of value to be unlocked in access to accurate data monitoring patient health.

In the UK, an NHS hospital at Wirral University began working with a company called Enovacom on COVID-19 treatment soon after the pandemic struck. The problem that needed to be solved was patient data. Data concerning patients on ventilators as they fought COVID-19 was collected using paper-based processes, but this proved prone to human error.

Enovacom’s technology automated patient data collection, adding it to the hospital’s electronic medical records (EMR) system. This freed valuable staff time and guaranteed accurate patient data that staffers  could access on a mobile device.

The inherent idea is that sensors gather patient data, feed it into patient record systems, and output that information to healthcare professionals.

Steps toward remote care and diagnosis

Once you have the data available in-house, it’s only a matter of time before it can be accessed externally. This is what opens the door to remote patient care and diagnosis, and may give people who might otherwise need to stay in a hospital more autonomy and a chance to recover at home.

“Products that seek to provide deeper health insights, like the Apple Watch, have the potential to be significant in new clinical care models and shared decision making between people and their healthcare providers,” said Dr Ivor Benjamin, immediate past president of the American Heart Association

Beyond caring for existing conditions, wearable devices can also open up new frontiers in health diagnosis. The Apple Watch is a poster child for this.

Its heart rate notifications and built-in ECG reader already save lives. Michigan’s Diane Feenstra recently made the news when her Apple Watch saved her life by warning of complications following a mild heart attack.

As these devices gather wider and deeper data about wearers, they build an ecosystem to support remote diagnosis, remote and in-person care and the mitigation of human error. They also provide an opportunity to identify symptoms far more quickly than under the current primary care system – as machine learning can warn of anomalies before a wearer knows there’s anything wrong.

“Most of the money in healthcare goes to the cases that weren’t identified early enough,” Apple CEO Tim Cook has said. “It will take some time, but things that we are doing now — that I’m not going to talk about today — those give me a lot of cause for hope.”

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