Personal health tracking, wearable technologies, and future potential.
So, the plague finally got to me. Three vaccine doses in and the new variant somehow broke through my defences. I guess, if one were to look for a silver lining, that it’s better to have it out of the way now. In actuality, it wasn’t that bad. The time spent in quarantine was perhaps more boring than dramatic. This veritable anti-climax, that the global pandemic has in this case been reduced down to boredom above all, is a testament to modern science and the impressive technology these vaccines are. In my own research, as a PhD candidate in social anthropology, I face my fair share of emerging technologies — and though some are more impressive than others, what often comes to the fore is the amazing potential many of these technologies have: they just need the opportunity to show it, and enough people to buy into the concept. They “just” need this, I say, as if it isn’t a tall order; but just as with the vaccines and the new tech that went into making them — notably the mRNA vaccines — there is a slew of other tech out there that can help in the fight against public health threats, such as the current pandemic.
I currently have two microchip implants, and I’ve spent the past six months or so playing around with a non-permanent CGM implant, as well as consistently using some wearables; notably the Oura Ring. Once I began my COVID journey, as it were, I quite understandably turned to these technologies to see how my infection could (or perhaps, could not!) be tracked using the data, and I want to take the opportunity to showcase this here, even if it remains a “quick & dirty” example.
As a quick note, most of my symptoms lasted less than 12 hours, with a very sudden onset (roughly 2 hours between the first symptom, slightly irritated throat, to developing a fever). Other, minor, symptoms lasted way past the 5 days during which my antigen tests returned a positive reading, such as a blocked nose or blocked sinuses. Here I will focus on the more dramatic symptoms to show the potential of these technologies.
By far, the most robust tech here proved to the Oura Ring, from which all the following data has been sourced. The first thing to look at is the temperature, a mainstay of viral infections. We’re all familiar with the fever. The ring doesn’t track my core temperature as such. After all, it’s a ring I’m wearing on my left pinky. Instead, the ring measures the temperature fluctuation of your skin while sleeping. As with most of these readings, the longer you use the ring the clearer it gets, but as it’s also a relative measure you see.
On a normal day, in this case 31 Jan — which also happens to be the night before my symptoms started — my relative skin temperature was +0.2 degrees, which is within a normal range, as I typically bounce between +0.2 and -0.2 degrees C. The next day, after the onset of the fever, this increased to a whopping +2.7 degrees C! The night after, back down to -0.1 degrees C, again within a normal range:
So, I definitely had a fever. A high fever, even! This evidently isn’t all too impressive on its own, because I could’ve told you this without any fancy metrics. Though, this does give us one interesting insight: the fever was very short-lived.
How short-lived? The resting heart rate (RHR) paints a pretty clear picture on that front. Firstly, below is a normal RHR curve, from the night before my positive COVID test. Pay specific attention to the segment marked in blue; resting heart rate while sleeping:
Relatively flat, and slightly convex. Again, this is but one example, but the majority of my sleeping RHR follows this trend. Now, let’s turn to the night of COVID:
The different shape of the curve stands out immediately. Not only is my RHR range much higher (64–114 BPM compared to 58–86 BPM the previous night), but the curve has gone from convex to concave. However, this betrays something particularly interesting. For clarity, below I have quickly superimposed the two graphs on one another:
My sleeping HR is remarkably different! Many viral agents tend to trigger fever specifically at night, so the fever would naturally settle by the morning, or during the morning. This is a phenomenon I am sure many of us have experienced: you feel rotten after you wake up, but get better during the day, only to begin feeling feverish again in the evening. But the next night, 2 February, my curve is back to being convex and the range has dropped back down to 57–82 BPM.
In other words, the peak on the graph above shows when my fever broke, measured at 4:53 am. The COVID symptoms began clearing just as quickly as they had appeared. The interesting takeaway from this whole ordeal isn’t that my stint with COVID was relatively mild, especially compared to the reports that came out early during the pandemic. I’ve had three doses of the vaccine, after all, and the omicron variant has been reported as far less severe than previous strains of the virus. Rather, what really stands out here to me is how tracking the various metrics, I can not only see how the virus affected my body, but I can pinpoint the exact time on the graph where the fever broke. Furthermore, it also allows me to go back through the data and confirm that the sudden onset of the symptoms were as sudden as they felt, so to speak; insofar that there was no elevated heart rate, change in skin temperature while sleeping, change in respiratory rate, or anything else like that.
Now, in essence, this doesn’t tell us much new about omicron itself; what I have outlined above is relatively typical of this variant. Instead it shows the power of that type of health tracking, and how it could be used for the sake of public health and other such measures. A friend of mine recently wrote a piece outlining this approach in more detail. This essay is not so much a response as something complementing his piece: from the conceptual use of this sort of work in health care, public health, and what we can call personal health and/wellbeing, what I wish to show here is how a relatively simple piece of technology — a health tracking ring — can effectively and practically show the sort of data and trends needed for that type of application.
I would also be remiss not to mention that this sort of approach is not a silver bullet as far as health is concerned; nor is it that novel. Biohackers, Quantified Self, and other such groups have been doing this for years. Whether with more conventional fitness trackers, something like a Oura Ring, or even repurposed medical technology — a continuous glucose monitor, or CGM, being the hot new kid on the block at the moment, something repurposed from the management of diabetes. Even the humble pencil and paper has been brought to bear by these groups to effectively keep track of health and wellbeing. What might be novel, however, is the application of this sort of mentality at a broader or even institutional level. As shown by what I’ve tried to display above, the technology now exists to effectively track and measure these metrics, and with enough of these technologies deployed, perhaps medicine and healthcare can finally make the shift from being reactive to truly being proactive.
After all, many countries have National Health Services, though for the moment they operate more as a National Sick Service. This has the opportunity to change in the near future — and what a change it would be!