Could a Wearable Health Device Predict Coronavirus?

UCSF psychologist Ashley Mason works on coordinating the distribution of ring sizing kits for 2,000 health care workers who will test the wearable health ring to see if it predicts coronavirus illness before symptoms appear. (Courtesy of Evan Drake)

Doctors and nurses at UCSF and San Francisco General Hospital will begin testing a wearable health device Monday that could indicate they are becoming ill from the coronavirus even before they feel sick.

Researchers are hopeful that the Oura ring, which takes continuous readings of body temperature, heart rate and respiratory rate when worn on a person’s finger at night, could yield data that predicts illness. That would allow doctors more time to take precautions — like self-isolating — so they don’t infect other health care workers.

“Because they're the ones that we desperately need to keep well,” said Ashley Mason, a psychologist at UCSF who is leading the research. “If this tells us things about symptoms that we're going to get — before we get them, then we've got time to get ready and help ourselves be safe and help the people around us be safe.”

Mason usually studies depression. Most recently, she was examining how people with depression can have trouble regulating their body temperature and she devised a study to see if sauna treatments helped.

“What we think might be happening when we use hyperthermia, or these sauna sessions, is we're re-turning the system on in the body, so that people are able to do more temperature regulation,” she said, and maybe feel less depressed.

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She had study participants wear the ring for a week before and a week after the treatments to measure their temperature. But when the coronavirus hit, UCSF, and many other universities, halted all non-essential research. Mason realized maybe the ring could be used for a different purpose.

“I got to thinking, ‘Wait a minute – we know that people who get COVID-19 are very likely to get a fever. That's one of the top symptoms,” she said.

UCSF gave her permission to do a new study to see if the ring can predict illness in the people who are most likely to get it: frontline health care providers.

Mason began recruiting her co-workers at UCSF, and in the coming weeks, more than 2,000 doctors, nurses and emergency responders will be wearing the ring, including ER doctor Robert Rodriguez. He says the continuous temperature readings are ideal, because fevers actually wax and wane.

“That's far superior than just isolated checks because you can miss a fever if you're only checking it once or twice a day,” he said, as doctors are currently told to monitor their health.

Plus, the additional data the device gathers is even more valuable.

“Elevated heart rate and elevated respiratory rate are even better predictors of disease than temperature,” he said.

The Oura ring is a consumer product and more than 100,000 people already own one. Researchers are inviting them to join the study, too – they can opt in through the app that records and organizes the data from the device.

Mason is excited about the potential of all that data, but she emphasizes the research is early. It will take months to determine if the device accurately predicts illness.

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