Wearables Could Improve Flu Forecasting, but They Miss the Most Vulnerable
Flu cases can be predicted from heart rate and sleep information
In 2017, a group of Stanford researchers found that wearable devices for tracking exercise could also tell when you’re getting sick based on abnormal measures of heart rate, skin temperature, and other biometrics.
The results intrigued Jennifer Radin, an epidemiologist and digital medicine expert at the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California. She wondered whether it was possible to pull together data from many wearable users to predict cases of flu. “Across my own wearables, I noticed my heart rate rose when I got sick, so I was really interested to see if I could apply this to a population level,” Radin told OneZero.
Using de-identified data from more than 47,000 Fitbit users, Radin and her colleagues improved flu forecasting in five states compared to current surveillance methods. The findings were published Thursday in the Lancet Digital Health. But crucially missing from this forecast were people who don’t own wearables, which are most likely to include children, the elderly, and lower-income people. These groups are also more susceptible to serious complications that can arise from the flu.
In the United States, about 7% of working adults and 20% of children younger than five get the flu annually. While most cases are mild, between 12,000 to 61,000 people have died annually from the flu since 2010, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Public health experts also worry about another pandemic flu, like the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, which hospitalized and killed more people than seasonal flu during other years.
The CDC predicts flu cases using information about new flu-like illnesses from hospitals and health care providers across the country that share data with the government. But this method has a lag time of one to three weeks, the estimates are often later revised, and reporting delays can allow outbreaks to go unnoticed. In the meantime, the flu can spread.
Just a fraction of the health care providers and hospitals across the country report cases of flu-like illness to the CDC, and only a quarter to…