Local authorities and hospitals in Japan have been using a range of remote monitoring devices to keep tabs on coronavirus patients recovering at home or in designated hotels during the pandemic.
The equipment includes innovative technology such as a shirt that gauges a patient's heart rate and a bed that tracks respiratory function.
And according to a team at St. Luke's International University in Tokyo that has developed its own telenursing system, such devices could even play a role in lowering the infection risk for overburdened health care providers.
"If used effectively, they could lessen the risk of (COVID-19) infections that come from in-person medical care and outpatient visits," said Tomoko Kamei, a geriatric nursing professor who heads the telenursing system development team at SLIU. "The systems can be applied in treatment of coronavirus cases in the home when a condition becomes severe."
The shirt, developed by Mitsufuji Corp., a textile manufacturer based in Kyoto, uses special threads that conduct electricity with a small sensor attached to measure heart rate and perform an electrocardiogram in real-time.
Data can be sent to the patient, a caregiver such as a family member or medical workers using a special app or by email. An alarm sounds if an abnormality, such as the person falling down, is detected, and a distress signal sent.
Kyoto Prefecture in western Japan has acquired Mitsufuji's shirts to use for telenursing of COVID-19 patients recuperating in hotels, making it easy for health care providers to immediately respond when there is a drastic change in a patient's condition.
Paramount Bed Co., based in Tokyo, sells a "smart bed system" that uses a sensor attached to the bottom of a bed to monitor a patient's respiratory function, heart rate and sleeping state.
The sensor is sensitive to subtle movements made by the body with each breath. The data appear on a bedside monitor that patients can view and are regularly sent to hospital nurse stations. An alarm is triggered in the event of an emergency.
Aside from using the beds for remote monitoring of patients in the home, several hospitals have also acquired them to allow nurses to observe coronavirus patients at their station without making frequent visits to check on them in person. In Saitama Prefecture, near Tokyo, the beds were used last year for patients staying at hotels.
Watches that track blood oxygen levels 24/7, such as Apple Inc.'s Apple Watch and Blood Oxygen app, have also become popular, although they are technically not medical devices. A sudden drop in oxygen saturation is a possible indication of a worsening condition for the respiratory illness, making oxygen levels essential to track.
Fitbit Inc. of the United States has a watch with sensors that shine red and infrared light on the wrist's skin and blood vessels and uses the reflected light to estimate how much oxygen is in the blood -- with poorly oxygenated blood reflecting more infrared light than red light, and richly oxygenated blood doing the opposite.
However, both watches were developed to monitor a wearer's general health and condition during workouts and are not suitable for making medical decisions, experts say.
Kamei's team at SLIU has developed a remote wireless system that uses a tablet controlled by the patient to record medical history, including blood oxygen saturation levels using a pulse oximeter. Data are automatically sent to a nurse monitoring station at the university.
Nurses check the data and confirm any points of concern with patients via video chat. The information is then shared with doctors who assess courses of treatment.
Some local authorities have been distributing medical pulse oximeters to COVID-19 patients while they recover at home or in hotels, but supplies have run low.
"It has been popular with users," Kamei said. "They say it gives them peace of mind to be watched over, even at a distance."