Researchers Explore Mobile Health’s Role in Monitoring COVID-19 Patients

Dec. 3, 2020
They looked at mHealth in the categories of wearable sensors, digital contact tracing technology, and electronic patient-recorded outcomes screening systems

A 60-person taskforce has published a study reviewing mobile health technologies and examining their use in monitoring and mitigating the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. They found that mHealth technologies are viable options to monitor COVID-positive patients and predict symptom escalation for earlier intervention.

The study, “Can mHealth Technology Help Mitigate the Effects of the COVID 19 Pandemic?”, has been published in the IEEE Open Journal of Engineering in Medicine and Biology. The taskforce was led by Harvard Medical School Associate Professor Paolo Bonato, director of the Motion Analysis Lab at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, and included international experts and those from across the U.S.

The study reviewed mHealth technologies in three categories: wearable sensors, digital contact tracing technology, and electronic patient-recorded outcomes screening systems. Taskforce subgroups then looked at how these technologies could be deployed in various settings and strategies in response to the pandemic.

Lincoln Laboratory biotechnology experts led a subgroup focused on wearable sensors for monitoring COVID patients, with the goal to identify sensors that are suitable to detect worsening symptoms in these patients who are self-quarantining at home. Data shows that a portion of these mildly symptomatic patients experience a sudden occurrence of severe symptoms at home and require hospitalization, the researchers pointed out.  As such, monitoring these patients with wearable sensors for subtle changes, such as in body temperature, heart rate, and oxygen saturation, could allow clinicians to intervene sooner, improving clinical outcomes. These sensors could also help clinicians monitor patients once they return home, according to the researchers.

“The high infection rates of SARS-CoV-2 put health care systems at risk of being overwhelmed with Covid-19 cases,” said Jeffrey Palmer, who leads the Lincoln Laboratory’s Human Health and Performance Systems Group. “Remote monitoring using mHealth technologies of those individuals who are at risk of, or have developed, Covid-19 may help alleviate some of the burden on the healthcare system.”

With Professor Sunghoon Ivan Lee and his team at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, they also studied the viability of using wearable sensors to monitor the health of front-line clinical workers, and to detect early signs of an outbreak in hospital or healthcare settings. Together, they reviewed 28 commercially available wearable sensors that could be used immediately in clinical practices. Through an evaluation framework, they narrowed their list down to 12 examples of technologies that could best be used today to monitor patients and healthcare workers.

“Clinicians look at a certain set of indicators for COVID-19, so our goal was to see which products are best for monitoring people for those certain indicators, and that already have regulatory approval. We also considered how well these sensors could be used across certain groups and demographics, because we want this to help as many people as possible, and how they might be used together,” Palmer said. “We didn't rank products because we are not endorsing one over the other; instead, we're providing examples of capabilities that could make a difference today.”

To this end, a few months ago, Fitbit released findings from a study showing that its wearable device can detect nearly 50 percent of COVID-19 cases one day before participants reported the onset of symptoms with 70 percent specificity.

Meanwhile, another subgroup at the laboratory evaluated emerging technologies, specifically those that haven't yet been commercialized or fully validated in the mHealth space, or technologies which have found success in other sectors but have not yet been used in health monitoring, said Tanya Talkar at Lincoln Laboratory, who co-led this subgroup.

Talkar's team focused on contactless sensing, vocal biomarkers, text-based mental health sensing, and robotic technologies. They identified several technologies that could apply to COVID-19 monitoring; although many of these technologies are still in a research state, Talkar believes they have potential to be integrated into healthcare environments in the future. For example, in the area of vocal biomarkers, presented as an emerging area in both mHealth studies that Thomas Quatieri of the Lincoln Laboratory co-led, the team has “formed new collaborations with the medical community that will provide essential data for our research in detecting and tracking COVID-19 through speech,” he said.

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