Telehealth and COVID-19 Testing Clarifying the role that telehealth plays in COVID-19 testing is essential at a time when many patients are anxious and confused

Patients are increasingly confused about COVID-19 testing. At Amwell Medical Group (AMG), we have seen a sharp uptick in test-related questions and calls to our network operations center, and we wish to explain and clarify the role that telehealth plays in COVID-19 testing.

The current backdrop of COVID-19 testing

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance for COVID-19 testing, testing protocols and priorities have been left to the discretion of state and local health departments and/or individual clinicians, leading to wide variations across locations and healthcare facilities.

As an example, some testing requires a doctor’s note or order, whereas testing sponsored by a public health department usually does not. A shortage of lab capacity and test kits, limitations on who can perform swab tests, and the inconsistent availability of drive-through testing are all adding to the uncertainty.

AMG’s role in testing

Our clinical protocols address which patients may be best served by COVID-19 testing. This is not a large group; most patients with COVID-19-like illness who do not have significant respiratory distress can be safely kept isolated in the home without the need for testing.

In some cases, however, testing may be reasonable for patients with mild-to-moderate symptoms who have complicating factors, including those who are immunosuppressed or chronically ill, are over the age of 60, or who have vulnerable family members at home.

If a patient with likely COVID-19 would benefit from testing, AMG providers offer a generic printable order and information on how to interpret the Yes/No results. This order is offered as a courtesy, with some important caveats:

  1. Testing may not be available in the patient’s area.
  2. The order may not always be accepted by the testing center (e.g., some centers require a doctor’s signature).
  3. AMG does not expect to receive results as we usually do with routine lab testing.

In addition, AMG providers remind patients that the test is only to confirm our suspected diagnosis of COVID-19, and to aid with decisions about Isolation or in-person care should they become necessary. Keep in mind that these tests are not perfect, and that in some cases results may take as long as two weeks. Finally, the provider suggests that the patient contact their primary care physician or local health department or schedule a follow-up telehealth visit if they have additional questions.

At a time when many patients are anxious about COVID-19 and confused about how best to use telehealth and how to get tested, it’s important that we be clear in setting proper expectations and educating patients about what can and cannot be accomplished via telehealth. Thank you as we work together to help manage and combat COVID-19.

Peter Antall, MD is the Chief Medical Officer of Amwell.