Managing Epidemics with Consumer Wearables


Managing Epidemics with Consumer Wearables aims to establish an ethical approach for public health stakeholders to respond to pandemics using insights derived from consumer wearable devices.

The Challenge

Using behavioral and physiological data from consumer Internet of Things (IoT) devices such as smart watches and fitness trackers to diagnose or predict health outcomes is a rapidly evolving field of research. Programs established by technology companies provide a critical pathway for researchers to access these datasets; however, public health officials are generally not aware of, nor able to access, insights derived from wearables to aide their fight against COVID-19. Furthermore, providing authorities with these insight raises critical questions on proper use and the potential for unintended impact.

The Opportunity

Recently published research and ongoing studies have highlighted the potential for using consumer wearables to identify flu-like symptoms in individuals. 1 in 5 adults in the US wears a smart watch or fitness tracker and over 170 million smart watches or wristbands were shipped globally in 2019, creating the opportunity for epidemiologists to track outbreaks of infectious diseases in real-time. To unlock this potential the World Economic Forum is partnering with public health authorities, researchers and technology companies. The outcome of this partnership will be a governance system that provides health authorities with safe, aggregated and anonymized insights on biomarkers such as changes in heart rates, activity and sleep patterns to spot emerging COVID-19 hotspots. The governance system will be co-designed by stakeholders through a design sprint and a workshop series to address critical public health needs while addressing challenges regarding safety, security, privacy, equity and trust.


Equipping epidemiologists with real-time insights on changes in community health will enable better allocation of scarce resources in response to COVID-19. The governance system could also empower technology companies and health authorities to provide consumers with more bespoke information during public health crises – mitigating potential suffering as well as unnecessary economic and social costs. Innovation in wearables continues to push the boundaries of consumer health and device sales are growing at 20% per year globally with emerging markets leading way (e.g. China experienced 40% growth in wearable shipments in 2019). Insights from this technology will become an ever more attractive tool to curtail public health crisis. It is critical that we work together to shape how that will be realized for responding to COVID-19 and future epidemics.

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