New app helps people monitor COVID-19 symptoms

Anastasia Tsirtsakis

29/05/2020 3:46:19 PM

The technology supports those in self-isolation to monitor symptoms from home, and to identify their mental health needs.

On phone while self-isolating
The app is designed to provide insight into the emotional needs of people during self-isolation in order to inform care pathways.

‘What do these symptoms mean?’
‘Should I get tested?’
‘Where do I go to get tested?’
‘How long do I self-isolate? Do I keep isolating if my results are negative?’

These are just some of the common questions for which a new app aims to provide guidance.
Led by a team at the University of Melbourne’s Department of General Practice, CovidCare has been developed by researchers and clinicians, including GP Dr Mukesh Haikerwal.
It allows patients with symptoms or a diagnosis of COVID-19 who are in isolation to self-monitor their progress. It guides them on how to measure their heart rate and body temperature, as well as documenting shortness of breath, which is then input into the app.
The technology gives patients guidance on steps to take, and when to seek medical attention from their GP.
Dr Haikerwal told newsGP the idea is to support the patient through COVID-19.
‘We started work on this very early in the evolution of the COVID epidemic,’ he said.
‘The concern was that there was so much information and it kept changing. [It is] very confusing for an individual who is isolating and watching their symptoms, not knowing when to escalate and what to do.
‘Then the other half of it is, once you’ve been in hospital and you’re coming out, what do you do next? It’s hard to have ongoing support to guide you about what you need to do to recovery.’
Beyond COVID-19 symptoms, the app also prompts users with questions about their emotional needs and how they are coping. This insight will provide researchers with critical information about the mental health impacts of self-isolation.
‘We haven’t had a whole bunch of people in the past sitting in hotels self-isolating and literally not being able to go onto a balcony and therefore getting stir crazy,’ Dr Haikerwal said.
‘Some people minimise their symptoms to their detriment. People are underestimating how severe they are and they end up on a very dangerous road with their mental health.
‘We have had a very tragic case in Victoria where somebody died. So we want to make sure they feel supported.’
A clinical trial to test the safety and efficacy of the app is now rolling out at participating respiratory clinics across Australia. Patients who are symptomatic or have tested positive to COVID-19 will use the app to regularly monitor their symptoms, as well as their mental health during self-isolation.
A sub-study will be conducted to better understand the emotional needs of people during quarantine.
Insights will help to inform care pathways offered by GPs, and also help in navigating responses to future pandemics.
Given the impact the pandemic has had on the way people live their lives and interact with others, CovidCare lead Associate Professor Victoria Palmer told newsGP the use of such technology is ‘critical’.
‘Going forward, in a situation where we have to have some physical distancing measures in place for some time, we really need to be able to reach people not only to monitor those vital signs around COVID-related symptoms, but also vital signs in mental health,’ she said.
‘We need to be able to support people in their home environment and support them to reach the right care at the right time as they need it.’
Dr Haikerwal believes the technology also has ‘huge benefits’ for GPs.
‘We are finding we need to systematise the way in which we do our health information and support for patients – almost industrialising – because you’re saying the same thing to 20 people. It’s much better if you can do it in the same kind of way, but also if you don’t actually necessarily have to repeat yourself over and over again,’ he said.
‘So that’s why you would [provide advice] using the app.’
The CovidCare team is also exploring how remote health tools could change the landscape of the primary care sector in the long term to become a larger platform of care beyond COVID-19.
‘Self-monitoring at home is important coming into flu season. So having some ways to support that, particularly in the context of the pandemic, is going to be critical,’ Associate Professor Palmer said.
‘It’ll also be appropriate for community-acquired pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, any other respiratory-related conditions.’
Turnaround time for the app being made available to the public will be largely dependent on how many people sign up for the trial.
GPs and patients have experienced the compression of 25 years’ worth of health reform in just two-and-a-half months. And while technology is proving to play an integral role in the way healthcare is delivered, Dr Haikerwal assures it is merely a support tool.
‘Each of these things is not a replacement of the doctor, but it supports the way in which the healthcare is given and tries to give people ongoing tools,’ he explains.
‘The conversation in the consulting room is 15–20 minutes in a day of 24 hours, in a year of 365 days – so there’s a very small window that you see the patient. Having tools to give them ongoing reinforcement messages is very beneficial.
‘That’s what we’ve been doing with the old e-health and clinical … records – this is the new way.’
With nearly 40% of Australians searching for online health information to self-treat medical issues, Dr Haikerwal says apps such as CovidCare, which connect people with their GPs, are a step in the right direction. 
‘My words around the use of technology in health for individuals is it’s a great tool, but you’ve got to put it back in the context of your own health and take whatever you’ve Googled back to your own doctor who you have a relationship with,’ he said.
‘Because everybody’s got cancer when you Google it. And if you have, then at least we can get to that stage, but the likelihood is you haven’t and we need to get you to a better place so you can look after yourself better.’
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