After weeks in lockdown with strenuous effects on our economy — and advice about how to protect ourselves that has been rapidly evolving — Americans are wondering what it will ultimately take to get us back to normal after COVID-19.
What we think of as “normal” may forever be changed, but the next step in returning to work and our social lives likely is mass testing for COVID-19 infections, along with aggressive contact tracing using the technology already in our pockets. Additionally, it will involve public-private coordination on a widespread scale to get it done, as well as the willingness of Americans to concede data privacy for the sake of health and economic wellness.
Beyond “Flattening the Curve”
As the number of new COVID-19 cases continues to rise, the primary focus is on "flattening the curve" through social distancing and shut-downs. In parallel, and most critical our healthcare workers on the frontlines are scrambling to treat the critically ill. There is a spotlight on getting ventilators and PPEs (personal protective equipment) to hospitals and healthcare providers, and modeling peak infection timelines using near-real-time data.
As the lockdown continues to impact the economy with widespread unemployment and business shutdowns, the hope is that the restrictions can be eased when testing is more readily available.
The strategy will shift to targeted isolation by early identification of new, even asymptomatic cases. The CDC Director has already called for aggressive contact tracing, while Apple and Google recently announced a partnership to make it a reality.
What is Contact Tracing?
Contact tracing is a public health tactic that involves identifying people infected with a virus, their movements, and the people in close contact with them, because those people are then also at high risk of becoming infected and spreading the virus outward.
By tracking the potential contacts, health officials can ensure anyone who has been infected gets treatment or follows proper isolation procedures — limiting the spread.
According to Harvard Business Review, data shows that the use of digital contact tracing in countries in East Asia has been effective in “flattening the curve” of COVID-19 cases in those nations.
Choice and Collaboration Will be Key
So far, the emphasis on COVID-19 data collection has been on projecting when the number of infections will peak, along with death projections and counts. But when the priority shifts to mass testing, there will be a deluge of patients making a beeline to get themselves tested. This will bring its own logistical challenges.
There may be a number of choices available when it comes to testing access — primary care physicians, urgent care networks, mini clinics and kiosks inside pharmacies and grocery chains.
Telemedicine and payer apps may also be useful in helping determine who needs testing and to direct people to places to get tested — or even let them order in-home testing kits.
But payers, providers, and retailers will have to collaborate and coordinate the use of these resources to avoid the kind of runs seen with essential supplies.
How We Move Forward
The way forward is to dovetail data and analytics with well-planned engagement strategies.
On the data front, three broad sources may be leveraged:
- COVID-19 testing data shared by the government that inform current infection levels
- Population health data available in-house with providers and retail locations that can identify untested but at-risk patients
- Triage data from in-clinic or digital visits, and apps, that can specifically prioritize less vulnerable but likely carriers
Once market needs and priorities have been established, and the requisite number of tests allocated, patients will need guidance and hand-holding on when and where to get tested.
Envisioning the COVID-19 Testing Experience
Consumers should be able to 'order' a COVID-19 test, and be advised of a 'pickup' location and time, with delivery priorities ranging from same-day to 3-day and 5-day timelines, based on a combination of the base risk in their area, and their self-reported symptoms.
So how does this experience come to fruition?
It begins with an up-front opt-in process that allows patients to sign-up for testing, and give consent for sharing of their data with payers. Note that this is in principle the same process that patients follow when they get flu shots. The difference here is that there is a gap between signing up and delivery.
Contact tracing apps, when they are launched, should proactively allow their users to key in their payer, provider, and pharmacy information, and consent to share and coordinate.
This would address the current state of the patient experience where there is no clear path when they have symptoms and are likely carriers, but declined testing because they're deemed not at risk.
When this gap is plugged, it would complete the continuum of care for patients while leading to an organized easing of restrictions.
Together We Can
A good approach makes for a good landing. It’s during times of great need that innovation often happens, and this is an opportunity for business and technology to support those on the front lines of healthcare. Let's work together to make it happen.