Telemedicine is essential amid the covid-19 crisis and after it

Eric Topol:

What about the features of a visit to a doctor that seemingly can’t be done at a distance, such as the physical exam? Today’s stethoscope is gradually being replaced—like everything else—by the smartphone. 

The microphone can be used by patients to do remote self-examinations, using an algorithm to analyse the cough and get a sense of whether a person has pneumonia. A “smart” thermometer used in America has accurately detected flu outbreaks and preliminary data suggest it predicted a covid-19 outbreak in Florida by spotting a rise in users’ body temperatures at a time atypical for the flu.

A decade ago fitness-trackers merely counted steps; today they measure heart rates and the latest Apple Watch can generate an ECG similar to a single-lead electrocardiogram. Similarly, the use of an inexpensive plaster (or “Band-Aid”) with sensors that continuously capture heart rate, coughs, breathing rate and body temperature can be used for remote surveillance of patients who do not require admission to a hospital. 

As we collect and share these data, clever processing and artificial intelligence enable new findings to improve health. At Scripps Research, we recently published a study of over 47,000 people that showed that data from smartwatches on a resting heart-rate (which typically increases before abnormal body temperature or fever) predicted the onset of flu-like illnesses in geographic clusters as well as, or better than, established means. We just launched a large smartwatch research study in America to determine whether the same can be achieved for predicting clusters of the covid-19 outbreak. That could help promote precision quarantines, better containment and eventually, if a treatment becomes available, its use at the earliest possible time.