Online tool aims to guide COVID patients on when to seek medical help

Anastasia Tsirtsakis

3/02/2022 3:25:14 PM

Healthdirect’s COVID-19 Symptom Checker is available now and has the potential to ease the burden on general practice and hospitals.

A women who is unwell searching online.
Healthdirect’s COVID-19 Symptom Checker assesses a person’s symptoms and provides information and advice about the type of care needed.

Currently, there are more than 350,000 active cases of COVID-19 in Australia, with health systems across the country continuing to feel the pressure on resources.
With 93.5% of people aged 16 and over fully vaccinated and 37.5% of those over 12 having received a booster dose, the majority of cases are mild and general practice continues to play a leading role in caring for infected patients in the community.
But with no sign of the spread abating, an online tool may be able to ease some of the burden.
Healthdirect’s COVID-19 Symptom Checker provides people who test positive to COVID-19 with detailed advice on when and how to isolate and recover at home, or when to seek medical help based on their individual symptom profile.
Developed in March 2020 under strict clinical governance of medical specialists, the online tool is continually updated with the latest guidance from the Communicable Diseases Network Australia (CDNA), National COVID-19 Clinical Evidence Taskforce and the RACGP.
Healthdirect Australia Chief Medical Officer Dr Nirvana Luckraj, who is also a Fellow of the RACGP, told newsGP that the Symptom Checker has been updated with current data on both the Delta and Omicron variants.
‘It [offers] information in a format that provides a clear path for people who are worried about their symptoms, particularly for those who don’t clearly know when to see a healthcare professional and that sort of tipping point from mild to moderate symptoms,’ Dr Luckraj said.
‘It also helps people understand exactly what symptoms are consistent with mild COVID and to differentiate from moderate disease, or even severe disease, and provides reassurance for them for which symptoms they are able to manage … at home just by self-care and with over-the-counter medication.’
People who test positive to COVID-19, or their carer, can access the online tool for free. They are then asked to input data on the infected individual, including their sex, age and confirmation of having returned a positive COVID test.
The tool then lists a number of symptoms that are associated with more severe disease, which direct the patient to ‘seek medical help now’.
If the patient responds no, they are then directed to a list of moderate symptoms, including:

  • Shortness of breath while walking around, such as noticeably having to breathe more heavily while walking around the house
  • Persistent fever above 38oC and not responding to treatment
  • Persistent and worsening cough regularly producing mucus
  • Struggling to get out of bed, and feeling dizzy or weak
If the patient is experiencing any of these symptoms and has any listed risk factors that put them at increased risk of their condition deteriorating, the tool directs the patient to ‘contact a doctor within two hours’.
‘If a GP is unavailable or closed, follow their instructions for contacting the emergency doctor, or attend an emergency department [ED]. Some EDs offer telehealth services. If you can’t do either safely, call triple zero,’ the Healthdirect platform advises.
The tool also integrates with the healthdirect Service Finder to connect people with nearby health services if needed.
For patients with mild-to-moderate disease that are being managed at home, Dr Luckraj said it is a good idea for GPs to suggest their patients use the online tool to help support them through their recovery.
‘It’s a similar assessment to how a clinician will assess the risk for a patient,’ she said.
‘It’s definitely very useful. It’s easily accessible, it includes all of the common symptoms of COVID-19, and a patient can perform a self-assessment at any time and it will help them decide, “when should I go to ED? When do I need to call my GP?” Or, “when can I just take some analgesics and manage myself at home?”’
With a number of patients reporting symptoms past their initial infection, healthdirect’s online hub can also provide insight on what to do once initial symptoms start to subside.
As well as being freely available, the Symptom Checker has been developed in plain English, avoiding the use of complicated medical terminology, so as to be easily accessible. While currently only available in English, Dr Luckraj says they are ‘looking into translation possibly in the future’.
Meanwhile, in addition to helping to ease any anxieties or knowledge-gaps patients may have about testing positive, Dr Luckraj is also hopeful that the tool can help to ease some of the burden on GPs and emergency services. 
‘We’ve also launched our Living with COVID service recently where we are providing a triage and assessment to those who are COVID-positive calling on the National Coronavirus Helpline, and after performing the assessment, particularly if they are low risk, we still refer them to the Symptom Checker so that they continue to self-assess and avoid attending any healthcare service,’ she said.
‘So it would definitely help lessen the burden on the healthcare services.’
Since its launch, Healthdirect’s COVID-19 Symptom Checker has been accessed 2.9 million times.
Healthdirect’s COVID-19 Symptom Checker is freely available via the healthdirect website and app, or the Department of Health website.
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