The secret weapon the US has to diagnose an epidemic

How telemedicine may help with diagnosing Covid-19

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Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

Over the past couple of months, countries around the world have faced massive logistical nightmares as the novel coronavirus COVID-19 has spread across the globe.

Healthcare systems around the world have been hammered as demand has spiked for diagnosis and treatment of this virus.

Countries have not only had to deal with their people getting sick, but also having enough hospital beds, medical staff, and tools for diagnosing those that are ill to quarantine them effectively.

One of the results of this in the US has been an $8.3 billion package that was designed to address a number of these fears. Some highlights include $3 Billion for Vaccine research as well as $2.2 Billion for health agencies to prepare and delay the spread of this virus.

But there’s a smaller number on that bill that you might have ignored: $500 million in Medicare telehealth restrictions. That, combined with Coronavirus testing being listed as an essential service in Medicare/Medicaid, as well as No Copays, No surprise billing, and No payment for treatment/testing of Covid-19, means that the US might have a secret weapon in the logistical fight against an epidemic.

And that’s telemedicine.

First things first, I am not a doctor, which means I will not talk about the medical aspects of the virus aside from the fact that it appears to spread pretty easily.

Instead, I want to talk about the logistics of the healthcare system, which have been problems countries around the world have been facing.

Healthcare systems around the world have been hammered because of one simple problem.

That problem is this: “How do we test patients for coronavirus without infecting others?”

We’ve heard of the problems with test kit shortages, but there’s another logistical problem that’s compounding the problem: waiting.

In overcrowded emergency rooms, it’s not uncommon for people have to wait over an hour to see a doctor.

So what happens when you combine waiting a long time with an extremely infectious disease?

Then the person who came with flu-like symptoms can test positive for coronavirus.

As well as the person who came in with a broken arm.

Not to mention the other people in the waiting room in the last hour.

As well as nurses, doctors, and other medical personnel.

That, combined with shortages in personal protective equipment such as N95 or surgical masks, may lead to issues in treatment.

So then the question becomes how do we minimize the possible waiting times and infection for healthcare workers, patients, and anyone else in the vicinity?

To do this, we can look at another country which has had a successful response: South Korea.

South Korea has had a drive-through model for testing which has been praised for its’ swift coronavirus response.

Citizens who believe they are affected can drive up to a testing facility, wait in a sealed environment (their cars), and then get tested by medical personnel while minimizing the risk of infecting others. The tests take about 10 minutes and then they are alerted to the results 3 days later.

This has been a model that has been praised for allowing for early detection, which has kept the fatality rate at very low 0.6%.

But while building something like this may help the logistical side of testing, it still requires a lot of personnel for this, which means several sets of masks, gloves, and other personal protective equipment that we may not have.

But that’s where telemedicine can come into play.

What is telemedicine? I’ve talked about this before, but it’s Remote Patient Consultation.

A patient can see a doctor through the use of something as simple as a tablet, and then have a consultation with a doctor about symptoms.

If tests need to be administered or other medical information is gathered, a medical assistant (such as a nurse) is usually on hand in the location to do so.

Having this be a method for testing allows fewer people to require protective equipment for diagnosis, while also providing the care that people need.

Also, telemedicine has several different benefits, such as avoiding crowded waiting rooms, minimizing the risk of infection, and lessening the costs and time associated.

Many employers even offer Health Insurance that provides telemedicine options that employees may not even be aware of.

If that’s the case, then why aren’t more people using it? There are 4 main reasons:

  • Telemedicine has been expensive for employers and businesses to implement
  • There’s little demand in urban centers.
  • People simply don’t think of it when sick or in pain
  • It’s limited by the services it can offer.

Furthermore, one of the big fears is that it can be a waste of time and money: what might happen if the doctor says I can’t tell from here, you need to come into the office.

As a result, the main use has been in rural areas, where it can be hard to get medical support for many different issues, and with chronic conditions such as a checkup during dialysis.

But given that testing for this virus is simple enough that it can be done with drive through testing, this is not something that is beyond the scope of telemedicine.

And since this is something that we have the infrastructure in, as well as a sudden influx of money to support telemedicine for this disease, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is one of the avenues that the US will pursue aggressively for rapid diagnosis of at-risk populations (such as senior citizens).

And perhaps, just perhaps, the US can come up with a healthcare solution that has taxed healthcare systems around the world.

I write about UX, Healthcare, and Productivity regularly. If you would like to learn how to communicate as a UX Designer, check out my online course here.

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Healthcare-focused UX designer and researcher. Creator of two online courses on design communication and UX research planning:

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