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How COVID-19 checkers reshape the digital patient journey

Symptom checkers dedicated to COVID-19 appeared in the use of healthcare organizations practically overnight. Hospitals and organizations introduced them as a swift answer to the growing number of repeatable questions about the coronavirus that significantly impeded the work of medics on the frontline.

Symptom checkers become gateways to medical services. Illustration by Tomek Tuz.
Illustration by Tomasz Tuz.

At a time when accessing reliable information is difficult, and emotions take precedence over reason, it is often a key action to avoid panic and efficiently manage the crisis situation. So far, we’ve had over 46 million cases of COVID-19 globally and the number is growing.

And so, the healthcare organizations that decided to implement symptom checkers for COVID-19 gained an important tool for sharing trusted information with their patients and letting them assess their own risk of contracting the virus. Only COVID-19 bots based on Microsoft Health Bot reached over 18 million individual users, and similar solutions are also implemented by various companies and governments. All of them, along with bringing reliable information to users, pave the new, digital path to medical information and care.

COVID-19 symptom checkers are basic risk assessment tools, based on guidelines from recognized health organizations, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which follow the recommended diagnostic protocols exactly as a doctor or nurse would do. Available solely via digital touchpoints, they are an important element in the shaping of modern healthcare.

Used either in patients' homes or waiting rooms, they collect basic information about their state, initially process them with a pre-diagnosis, connect with the patient's electronic health records and advise the right level of medical help in just a few minutes, significantly improving the performance of primary healthcare.

One of these is the COVID-19 Risk Assessment tool that we have developed at Infermedica, which is in use by over 300 organizations worldwide. With this as an example, let’s take a glimpse at the newly reshaped digital paths for users.

Opening the doorway of the digital patient journey and modern healthcare

As the pandemic unfolded, the ways in which people usually obtained medical information rapidly changed. On the one hand, people who would normally visit a physician to control their health have been limited - be it due to the high load on the health centers or fear of getting the virus - in this situation. They joined a large group of people looking for information online.

People are more likely to look for information on the Internet

For many, Google or social media was the first clue. It was there that they could contact the websites of healthcare organizations, local governments, and even universities that offered comprehensive information about the new virus. In the peak period of the first wave of the pandemic, COVID-19 basics ware the most visible information on websites and applications of many organizations.

Companies used simple yet well exposed banners to inform about the COVID-19 checker available for their patients.

People get reliable information

The first step to fulfill user needs was to provide proven information on the coronavirus. This was the main goal for the majority of organizations.

Those who were more concerned about their health could seek direct contact with a physician, but overburdened clinics were often unable to provide them without delay. Being aware of these bottlenecks, organizations introduced a new solutions for these users – self-assessment tools allowing people to analyze symptoms and learn the probability of having coronavirus themselves.

Despite the form, questions related to symptoms and risk factors are often very similar, as they are aligned with recommendations from WHO or CDC. Examples: Swiss Coronavirus check, Covid-19 RA.

This stage, new for many users and organizations, guides concerned users step by step through a series of questions related to their symptoms, risk factors, and possible contacts with infected people. However, any symptom checker cannot replace a physician, thanks to its source in the well-established diagnostic protocols, it makes it possible to assess the risk of developing the coronavirus.

Connecting users with appropriate services

People who underwent the complete COVID-19 symptom checking process could find out if they are at risk of having the disease, whether they should be isolated, seek medical attention, or even contact an emergency room immediately.

All results page are complemented with a triage level and information about the next steps that the patient should undertake.

Usually, the recommendations were complemented with the appropriate contact information to the designated local healthcare providers. In the case of selected medical centers, patients could also schedule an appointment as a direct step after the symptom checking process.

Diagnostikare is an example of a healthcare provider who implemented the ability to book a visit directly within the COVID-19 risk assessment tool.

The last step, although additional and implemented only by some healthcare providers, shows how COVID-19 symptom checkers open the doorway to the growing number of services offered as a part of telemedicine. This could be anything from scheduling the visit or reviewing information gathered in Electronic Health Record (EHR), to video consultations and direct chats with physicians.

The presented scenario, of course, applies not only to COVID-19 checkers but to any tool that allows healthcare facilities to initially assess patient's symptoms through the digital means of communication.

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Supporting people and relieving healthcare professionals

The growing number of implementations of COVID pre-diagnosis tools has brought support and peace of mind to more than patients. It has also noticeably supported healthcare professionals in efficiently managing a situation that no one expected.

The list of benefits that come with the implementation of  COVID-19 checkers will be different depending on the healthcare organization and the way it is organized, but regardless of this, healthcare workers could benefit from:

  • having a digital first-shield in diagnosing COVID
  • identify high-risk patients
  • decreasing call center loads
  • releasing parts of the medical staff from triage tasks
  • lowering the number of patients in facilities
  • redirecting some patients to telemedicine
  • efficiently sharing information about the disease

To the surprise of many, the implementation of a checker symptom in its basic version is not difficult nor time-consuming. In the case of many tools, it is possible to easily embed it on the website of a medical facility. This way, patients receive unlimited access to the diagnostic tool and information source.

In case of connecting the same symptom checker with the existing hospital systems or mobile apps, developers can use available API endpoints.

Further directing of the digital patient journey development

A rapid adaptation of digital tools for the initial assessment of COVID-19 symptoms is opening the door for new solutions in healthcare, as well as for shaping new behaviors among patients.

The ongoing pandemic will make it difficult for traditional access to medical care for many more months. We are already seeing a drop in patients seeking help in healthcare centers and hospitals. According to the CDC's research, emergency room visits dropped by 42% in spring, when the pandemic began. Also, more than 1 in 4 adults experiencing a heart attack or stroke would "rather stay at home than risk getting infected with COVID-19 at the hospital", as the American Heart Association's research shows. This means that, in many cases, patients will not receive help on time and the treatment process will be much more difficult. In this situation, we must look for other ways to reach patients and ensure the continuity of their health.

Symptom checkers can positively influence this situation. First, patients can make an initial assessment of their symptoms and take further steps consciously and without hesitation. Secondly, a completed symptom check provides excellent help in communicating with a doctor who can understand a patient's condition faster and provide help either online or physically.

Patients are using digital tools more and more often, shaping new behaviors and needs, as well as influencing the way they communicate with the physicians. 'Better cooperation' is the direction that comes to mind first.

Digital tools for the initial diagnosis may also prove an effective way to reach patients with limited mobility or living outside large agglomerations. They can also be an instrument for monitoring the health of patients with chronic diseases or for routine screenings that will affect earlier disease detection and prevention.

How exactly will digital pre-diagnosis tools affect healthcare? There is no clear answer to this question, but we can expect it to improve the flow of information between doctors and patients, and lead us towards more accurate and personalized healthcare.

BL/EN/2020/12/17/4