Muscat: The COVID-19 pandemic has seen many people taking better care of their lives, so as to avoid the possibility of infection from the disease.
Keen on monitoring their diets, and ensuring they exercise enough, more and more people are wearing gadgets and installing apps that help them keep track of their health.
As a result of this, doctors in Oman say the data generated from these devices help them diagnose their patients’ ailments faster, but have advised that while they do provide an outline of a person’s health, it is important to not rely on these gadgets alone.
Dr Zaid Al Hinai, a consultant paediatrician in infectious diseases at Sultan Qaboos University Hospital said, “Tools such as smart watches are adding more and more medical and health-related capabilities. But the field is still in its early days and needs to develop further. Some smart watches can provide data such as ECG readings and might help people who have conditions like irregular heartbeats, because it can provide indications of changes in a person’s heart rate.
“Such technology used to be previously available only within medical facilities,” he added. “This represents a big opportunity to detect disease faster, but also presents its own set of challenges. Perhaps doctors will become overwhelmed by all patients who want them to review their ECGs.”
An increasing number of tools to monitor various aspects of a person’s health, such as heart rate, oxygen level, blood sugar, body temperature and breathing rate now come as standard in many of the technologies used to monitor one’s health.
The tech itself is also available in many forms. While smartwatches from companies such as Fitbit and Apple have been in the market for some time, rings that help people keep their health in check are also fast gaining popularity.
Products from Oura and Motiv can track a person’s sleep to help them make the most of it, in addition to providing insights into a person’s heart rate, respiration, body temperature, and calories burned, among other parametres. To help athletes get the best out of their hectic schedules, the US National Basketball Association recently bought 2,000 Oura smart rings.
Vendors of such tech in Oman say they have seen a spike in sales of such devices, with people keen to take extra precautions for their health during the pandemic.
“Sales of our other items have been slow, but we have seen a sharp increase in sales of three items,” said a manager at a retail outlet in Oman. “The first is computers, because of the increase in online classes and communication, the second is personal care items such as trimmers, because all the barbers and salons were closed until recently, and the third is what we called health technology items.
“This includes items like the smartwatch, as well as gadgets that help you monitor your blood pressure, sugar levels, and other activities, because right now, people are becoming far more health conscious.
“They’re looking to improve their health so that they reduce their chances of falling sick, as that could lead to complications that could lead to infection from COVID-19.”
Users of these tools also say they are a worthwhile investment. “Right now, I am cautious about going to hospitals because a lot of people who are COVID positive might be present there, and I want to safeguard myself and my family,” said Hamdoon, an Omani national. “I have an app on my phone that helps me monitor my health and take action accordingly.
Geeta, an Indian housewife added: “We have a small child at home, and at a time like this, we cannot risk falling sick. These gadgets might not provide us the whole picture, but at least they help us take action accordingly.”
Like Oman, which developed Tarassud app to monitor the spread of COVID-19 and generate awareness on good practices for people to follow, other countries such as Australia (COVIDSafe), Canada (COVID Alert), Czechia (eRouska), Denmark (smitte|stop), France (ROBERT), India (Aarogya Setu), Italy (COVID Community Alert), Jordan (AMAN), Spain (Radar COVID), the UK (NHS COVID-19), and the US (PathCheck) have also introduced similar mobile applications.
As part of its response to the spread of the coronavirus, the World Health Organization encouraged the use of digital tools to help COVID sufferers and workers, as it would provide ways for them to monitor their health and accordingly take action, or seek medical assistance, where possible. The WHO itself uses an app to upload and monitor incidents of COVID-19. Called Go.Data, the app was developed in collaboration with the Global Outbreak and Response Network, a team of technical and public health institutions, laboratories, non-governmental organisations and other bodies that collaborate to fight epidemics in countries.
“In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many digital tools have been developed to assist with contact tracing and case identification,” said WHO, as part of its guidelines over how these needed to be designed so they could help people. These tools include outbreak response, proximity tracing, and symptom tracking tools, which can be combined into one instrument or used as stand-alone tools.”
“Although several countries and areas have deployed digital tools for their COVID-19 response, there is currently limited evidence to evaluate the effectiveness and impact of these tools,” they said. “As such, digital tools should not be considered as ‘single solutions’ for contact tracing, but rather as complementary tools.”
They added: “Additionally, the implementation of digital technologies in contact tracing carries the potential to do harm through privacy breaches, provision of incorrect medical advice based on self-reported symptoms, and the systematic exclusion of some members of society who cannot access such technologies. It is therefore important to have sufficient regulatory oversight of digital tools for contact tracing.”
Zaid Al Hinai said in this context: “With the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors have been turning more and more to these technologies to facilitate what is referred to as telemedicine. With this, there is no need for the patient to always come to the clinic, which could increase the risk of exposure to the virus.
“Perhaps the most impressive application of this technology is in the treatment of diabetes,” he added. “Patients can wear a device that constantly monitors their blood sugar and sends the data to the doctor’s office. The doctors can use this to find out when the readings are good and when they are bad, and can advise the patient accordingly, on how to monitor his diet and medication.
“With regards to infectious diseases, my speciality, it is not as useful, because the data it provides about the patient is still too limited to make a diagnosis,” he said. “These apps have been used to help diagnose the infection using artificial intelligence, but this has not yet proven to be very accurate. Additionally, the apps have been used to trace the contacts of infected persons. But experts believe the technology is not strong enough yet to replace well-trained human contact tracers.”