Last week, the first-ever virtual AIMed conference – AIMed Cardiology touched on how wearable technology could play an important part in outpatient care. Particularly, if they were to pair with artificial intelligence (AI) to improve on accuracy and predict the onsets of certain medical conditions.

Indeed, it’s not day one clinicians, tech companies and even patients are keen to find out whether remote heart monitoring via portable electrocardiogram (ECG) machines or blood pressure cuffs connected to the internet can successfully minimize the number of face-to-face visits at the clinics without compromising on the outcomes.

Now, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic appears to be the breakout moment for one to test it out full-fledged. Medical facilities are cutting down on non-emergency procedures and number of visitors. Patients are forced to miss their routine appointments to prevent catching the virus. Coincidentally, the unprecedented circumstance also takes place at a time when tech companies are each armed with their respective cardiac ambition.

More than heart monitoring

For example, Apple and Verily, the life sciences research branch of Alphabet, had released watches that are equipped with ECG that can pick up atrial fibrillation, a heart anomaly associated with increased risk of stroke. Apple also partnered with Stanford Medicine in a large-scale assessment to validate its wearable’s detection function. While Amazon and Facebook both included prominent cardiologists to oversee their health technology effort.

Some of these preventive tools are not only meant for heart monitoring, Apple and Fitbit had tested their watches as early warning systems for COVID-19 based on users’ activity levels and sleep patterns, which were found to be useful in flu prediction early on. In January, Fitbit introduced blood oxygen level monitoring function to five of its devices, a feature vital in diseases affecting one’s lungs. Others like the Zio device designed by digital healthcare company – iRhythm are already deployed clinically.

Unlike traditional ECG machine, Zio is a water-resistant band-aid patch which users can stick to their chests for up to two weeks. It’s usually prescribed by physicians to patients who have preexisting heart conditions. According to Stat, there has been an increase request among COVID-19 and heart patients for Zio as a lighter alternative, so the point of care is now shifted from hospitals to respective homes.

The same question: will all these remain after the pandemic?

Demands for portable, miniature ECG devices that do not require doctor’s prescriptions like those developed by startup AliveCor, have also gone up since lockdown began in many cities. People are generally more cautious about leaving homes and making their way to the hospitals now. On the other hand, physicians are looking for opportunities to keep track of their patients’ progress while not overtly exposing them to additional risks.

The pandemic has definitely facilitated remote heart monitoring through smartwatches with heart monitoring functions and light ECG devices. However, the same question remained as those tools that were born during this period of time – will it stay after the global crisis is over? Some believe the change has opened both medical staff and patients’ minds to how technology can be used in a way that differs from what they believe all along.

As such, if the shift enables both physicians and patients to have a better insight into heart health in real-time, it’s just a matter of time before remote heart monitoring becomes far more widespread.


Author Bio

Hazel Tang A science writer with data background and an interest in the current affair, culture, and arts; a no-med from an (almost) all-med family. Follow on Twitter.