If you’re worried you have contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, don’t go to the doctor — at least, not right away.
It seems counterintuitive, but the Washington State Department of Health is urging people with symptoms to call their doctors instead of heading to an emergency room or urgent-care facility.
“People who think they may be sick are advised to call their health care provider,” Danielle Koenig told Digital Trends in an email. She’s the assistant public information officer for the Joint Information Center, which is coordinating the state’s response to the coronavirus. “Their provider can work with them to determine what they may be sick with and whether they need testing.”
In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)n and the World Health Organization (WHO) are both encouraging people to use telemedicine options like American Well, Buoy, or Doctor on Demand. Many hospitals offer virtual clinics as well.
The benefit of calling ahead or doing a virtual doctor visit is two-fold: One, it keeps anyone who is sick from spreading their illness — be it the flu, a cold, or coronavirus — and two, it can give physicians and nurses more time to devote to those with more severe symptoms.
As of March 10, 190 people in the Seattle area have been diagnosed and 22 people have died from the illness. Because the virus was circulating undetected in the state for over a month, one researcher estimated there could be between 150 to 1,500 people who have the virus but haven’t been tested. Many cases are mild or even asymptomatic, so not everyone needs to get tested, according to the Washington Department of Health.
“At present, testing for the new coronavirus is not provided on request by members of the public, unless their health care providers determine that they meet the criteria for testing, or that, in their clinical judgment or on the advice of public health agencies, they should be tested,” according to UW Medicine, one of the facilities in the state that’s testing for the coronavirus. UW Medicine also has a virtual clinic that costs $35 a visit. Swedish, another Seattle-area hospital, is urging anyone with flu-like symptoms to self-quarantine and monitor themselves for fever, cough, and trouble breathing.
Your doctor should be able to tell you over the phone if you can treat your symptoms at home, or if you need to go to the hospital. They can also instruct you on who to contact so the hospital can make any advanced preparations, like admitting you through alternative entries.
Doctor on Demand lets patients connect with doctors via an app. On its site, there’s a coronavirus assessment anyone can take to get a recommendation about whether or not to call a doctor. Some of the questions include whether you have a history of diabetes, decreased immunity, or chronic lung disease. A virtual visit costs $75 if you don’t have insurance.
“The physician will take a thorough history, observe the patient, and do an assessment that includes an examination,” said Dr. Ian Tong, the company’s chief medical officer, in an email.
During the visit, the physician may also ask for biometric data, like heart rate and temperature. If you have a fever and an elevated heart rate, that might signal the possibility of developing respiratory distress, said Tong. He added that the company is coordinating with the CDC and local public health officials to handle any suspected cases.
“For ones with low-acuity symptoms, our physicians will monitor and treat, as well as report persons under investigation to public health officials in accordance with CDC protocols,” he said.
Doctor on Demand hasn’t done a full assessment of where its influx of calls are coming from, “however, we are currently seeing an increase in the volume of visits well beyond our forecast,” said Tong.
While the promise of telemedicine is that it will keep more sick people at home and hopefully keep a lot of people from panicking, there are some issues.
“The biggest challenges stem from factors that don’t exist in China, like our vast array of private, state, and federal payers with varying reimbursement policies and state-based medical licensing,” Linda Branagan, the director of the University of California, San Francisco’s tele-health program, told STAT. It also shuts out anyone who doesn’t have the tech savvy or equipment to do a virtual chat with a doctor.
The coronavirus may spur more Americans toward telemedicine, but it could still leave some of the most vulnerable behind.