In the early days of COVID-19, the only thing that seemed to spread faster than the illness itself was fear. For many, even mild symptoms were cause to seek immediate answers, if not treatment outright.
Driven by that uncertainty, the sudden influx of patients stressed already limited resources as hospital and healthcare centers struggled to respond to the crisis.
As part of the solution, Michigan Medicine turned to telehealth technology, standing up a triage hotline for COVID screening during the early stages of the pandemic.
Many medical students helped staff the hotline, and some also conducted research to show how the program was an effective means of diverting low-risk cases to online resources while identifying and directing higher-risk callers onward for immediate assessment.
Their report, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, details a 6-week period in early 2020 when hotline volunteers fielded nearly 4,000 calls.
Based on reported symptoms, potential exposure, and risk factors determined, 34% of callers were forwarded to a registered nurse. The rest were redirected to web resources.
The hotline also provided a real-time snapshot of disease characteristics in the community. Cough was the most commonly reported symptom among callers (34%), followed by shortness of breath (27%), upper respiratory infection (25%), and fever (24%).
For the medical students who led the study, the opportunity to staff the hotline and conduct related research was a way to contribute to the pandemic response. Students across the country were pulled from clinical rotations in the first months of the pandemic, but many still sought ways to help with the COVID response in any way they could.
For Anjan Saha, a triage hotline team leader and co-corresponding author on the paper, answering that call meant, quite literally, answering phone calls.
“Everybody had something to contribute during the pandemic crisis. No one was considered a non-essential worker,” said Saha, now an anesthesiology resident at Columbia University Irvine Medical Center. “There was intrinsic value for everyone’s work and thoughts.”