We all know the symptoms that we should look out for, but with the contagious period starting before symptoms begin, detecting the virus earlier could significantly differentiate transmission rates.
A team at Northwestern University and the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago have developed a novel wearable device that aims to use a set of data algorithms to catch early signs and symptoms and monitor how the illness progresses.
Why Can't Conventional Wearables Detect COVID Symptoms?
Many of us use fitness trackers these days, which monitor our heart rate and other vital statistics. It can be tempting to try to use these devices to catch early COVID-19 symptoms. However, unfortunately, they are just not sophisticated enough to monitor the illness.
The primary issue is that conventional wearable devices tend to be worn on the wrist or finger, which isn't the best location to monitor fever, shortness of breath, and coughing, the three most common early symptoms.
Segments of the wearable designed to monitor the health of COVID-19 patients. The wearable functions through a pair of sensors that sit at the base of the throat and wrap around a finger to monitor respiratory health and pulse oximetry. Image Credit: Northwestern University.
Where Did the Idea for the New Device Come From?
The study, from the Northwestern and Shirley Ryan labs, focused on monitoring post-stroke swallowing and speech disorders. Sensors were used to measure vibrations in the throat and chest, which helped to avoid background sounds found in acoustics.
The team at Northwestern realised that they could use similar technology to measure vibrations related to COVID symptoms, such as chest wall movements and coughing.
How the Wearable Works
The new wireless device is attached below the dip at the base of the throat, the suprasternal notch. This is the ideal position to detect respiratory health changes as it is where airflow occurs closest to the surface of the skin. The device contains a suite of clinical-grade sensors to measure:
The primary sensor measures tiny vibrations on the skin to detect respiratory changes. It counts coughs, monitors their intensity, determines swallowing patterns, and senses laboured breathing.
There is an embedded sensor to detect the beginnings of a fever.
As the sensor is close enough to the carotid artery, it can measure the mechanical signature of blood flow.
An additional pulse oximetry sensor can be worn to monitor for silent hypoxia marked by low blood oxygen levels.
The device wirelessly transmits data to a cloud-based system. Once there customised data algorithms can produce user-friendly graphical summaries to enable fast remote monitoring by thoracic surgeons and healthcare workers.
Image displaying the location of the suprasternal notch on the human body.
What Are the Results So Far?
The device has already been tested on over 50 physicians, rehabilitation specialists, and patients at the AbilityLab and Northwestern hospital. From the 3,000 hours of collected data, the team is already seeing apparent differences between the test group and the carefully matched control group. They are hoping to test over 500 subjects by the end of the year, allowing them to continue to develop the device.
In terms of patient use, the device is made from a comfortable soft silicone material and is approximately the size of a postage stamp. Users charge the device and put it on, with no need to take it off to shower or to exercise.
There are no wires, electrodes, and charge ports of removable batteries, making it safer for reuse. The device is fully sealed in biocompatible silicone and can be completely immersed in alcohol and exposed to a gas-based sterilisation system.
What Difference Will the Wearables Make?
COVID-19 is proving itself to be a difficult virus to detect, control, and treat. Symptoms are different, some deteriorate rapidly, some take weeks, and others remain entirely asymptomatic. All these unknowns highlight the requirement for continuous monitoring, an existing data gap in the fight against the disease.
The around-the-clock device shows promise to enable the infection to be detected earlier from raw data before individuals even perceive symptoms. This will help individuals isolate and seek treatment sooner and reduce the spread of disease.
On top of that, by measuring multiple variables, data algorithms will help professionals develop a fuller picture of the onset and progression of the disease and its response to treatment.
The continuous data stream from the new device combined with artificial intelligence will help uncover subtle and potentially life-saving insights. Over time, the machine learning algorithms within the device may detect the difference between a benign cough and a COVID-type cough and determine how long patients are contagious.
Ultimately, the use of bioelectronic engineering could make a big difference in our fight against the virus.