Wearable technologies are advancing at a rapid pace. While the Internet of Things (IoT) has yet to be fully realized, societies are moving in that direction. All sorts of devices will soon be able to track and provide data, ushering in an entirely new era of analytics. In fact, the coronavirus pandemic has done its part in accelerating this trend. Wearable health monitors can provide specific information about users ranging from body temperature to proximity to contacts. As a result, many organizations and institutions are embracing wearable devices as a way to combat COVID. But where’s the proof such strategies work? Even if they do, are the benefits work the risks?
As several companies jump on the wearable devices’ bandwagon, it’s important to step back and reconsider our direction. Biotechnology advances are incredible and are allowing numerous breakthroughs in science. Wearable health monitors can provide information about a variety of health behaviors that can guide better care. But the “wearer” has a right to know what data is being shared and how it is being used. Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic is causing many to draw conclusions about wearable devices that are far from clear. Before we travel too far down this path, it’s worth examining the landscape a little closer.
“It’s chilling that these invasive and unproven devices could become a condition for keeping our jobs, attending school or taking part in public life. Even worse, there’s nothing to stop police or ICE from requiring schools and employers to hand over this data.” – Albert Fox Cahn, Executive Director, Surveillance Technology Oversight Project
The Use of Wearable Health Monitors Today
Wearable devices have been around for a long time. Fitbit, Garmin, and other wearables have been available to track fitness performance for years. These devices have been progressing steadily with more and more apps becoming available. Not only do these wearable health monitors track heart rate, breathing, and step-count. They also monitor max heart rate percentages, oxygen levels, and even sleep quality. But with COVID, the need to track symptoms and contacts exploded overnight. Today, a variety of companies are specializing in these types of wearable devices in response to rising demand.
Earlier this year, Apple and Google teamed up to launch a contact tracing platform to help. But these systems are linked to smart phones. This is not ideal for many populations, such as employees who are not allowed to carry phones. Likewise, athletes at practice or in games are unable to carry phones at all times as well. This has led to a boom of wearable health monitors to help with COVID issues. For example, Kinexon offers wearable devices that many professional and college athletes now use. These tract proximity to others and notifies wearers if within 6 feet of others. Kinexon uses Bluetooth sensors created by Microshare as part of its platform.
Other biotechnology companies are approaching this from a different perspective. BioIntellisense has a device called the BioButton. Used at some colleges, the BioButton tracks users’ temperatures to determine if they might have early COVID symptoms. These same types of wearable health monitors can also be used to track oxygen levels and breathing patterns for the same reason. These forms of wearable devices are required in sports leagues like the NFL, NBA and some college football conferences. And some companies, like GlaxoSmithKline, are now requiring employees to wear them as well.
“We’re able to tabulate that data, and from that information we can help identify people who are close contacts to someone who’s positive.” – Chris Klenck, MD, Head Physician, University of Tennessee
The Potential Slippery Slope of Wearable Devices
When Apple and Google launched their contact tracing platform, many expressed concerns about privacy protections. The platform, however, was to protect smart phone user identity and prevent location and other data from being accessed. These same concerns naturally exist with wearable health monitors. But the key difference now is that organizations and businesses are requiring members to wear them. The data collected is intended to be used to create safer environments and avoid the spread of COVID. But what’s stopping these organizations and companies from using the data for other purposes?
If nothing else, Google, Facebook, and other social media sites have shown us that user data is priceless. The use of this type of data has completely changes the fabric of societies throughout the world. Therefore, it’s worth considering how access to data from wearable health monitors might do the same. Could such data be used in making hiring and firing decisions? Without preexisting health condition protections, insurance companies certainly used this data to determine pricing and access. Devices from wearable devices could also be used to monitor, oversee, and punish individuals in different contexts as well.
The key issue here is one that pits public health concerns against individual civil rights. Without question, public health benefits at times outweigh individual rights. Those who favor mandatory vaccination programs would certainly agree with this statement. But with wearable health monitors and COVID, there’s a key distinction. There’s no proof that wearable devices and the data they provide make a difference. Contact tracing data is valuable and should be collected when possible. But wearable health monitors tracking temperature and other parameters have no proven benefit. In fact, roughly 40 percent with COVID have no symptoms at all.
Nothing’s Free… Especially Data
The bottom line is that the data that wearable health monitors provide belong to the wearer. Organizations, companies, and sports leagues have the responsibility to notify users what data is being collected and how it is being used. Legal statutes should be in place requiring such transparency and enforced if violated. Likewise, Individuals should have the choice of whether or not to use wearable devices in this context. Unless significant public health benefits can be proven, this option should be available. This is the way health data has always been protected ever since the creation of federal privacy laws like HIPAA. Wearable health monitors shouldn’t change this…even in the era of COVID.
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