Visiting urgent care or your doctor’s office right now can be scary right now — even if you don’t have any symptoms of COVID-19. It can also be costly — if you have or don’t have health insurance. Although emergency rooms around the country have seen a record low number of patients since the coronavirus hit, many doctors and nurses warn that ignoring regular health concerns in order to avoid an in-person office visit could in fact be more detrimental than experiencing long lines in waiting rooms.
“Just because there’s a pandemic doesn’t mean that other medical conditions stop,” Josh Emdur, Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) and Medical Director of Clinica Colorado, said.
In Colorado, there’s a solution to avoiding an in-person office visit if you’re concerned about catching COVID-19 or worried you might have it. CovidLine, a free hotline for COVID-19 screening and telehealth services for Coloradans who do not have health insurance, launched April 24 and has put our state on the map for efforts in reducing hefty medical bills and long wait lines.
The program is funded by Brad Feld and pairs retired doctors with volunteer medical students to offer concerned anonymous callers medical advice and/or free COVID-19 screening — depending on their symptoms.
According to Emdur, the idea for CovidLine stemmed from early prospective COVID-19 patient advisories to call their primary care physician before making a doctor’s appointment or trying to get tested.
“There were all these resources out there for people who were all pretty much coached to call their doctor. It was really Brad Feld who came up with the idea of wanting to make sure everyone had a doctor that they could just call if they were sick, scared or in need without insurance,” he said.
“That’s the mission that CovidLine is trying to solve — to provide anyone in Colorado who is uninsured with a doctor. Making people feel comfortable is a big priority for us. There’s so much uncertainty right now — especially for people who might be undocumented.”
Helping callers maintain their anonymity so that they don’t worry about using the hotline is extremely important to the volunteers at CovidLine. A volunteer team of software developers built an interactive voice response system (IVR) in order to disguise the voices of the callers. After a caller phones in, Emdur says they’ll be routed through a computerized call center based on the CDC severity scoring system for COVID-19 symptoms. The caller’s responses to the questions will determine how the CovidLine team will help.
If the caller appears to have no COVID-19 symptoms and is low-risk, he or she will be given resources regarding COVID-19 or any other health-related issues. If the caller is high-risk and has severe symptoms of COVID-19, he or she will be instructed to dial 9-1-1. If the caller has symptoms of COVID-19 and/or qualifies for a doctor’s visit, he or she will be prompted to make a free telemedicine visit with one of the doctors or volunteer medical students by phone or video call.
Emdur says that the response from both callers and volunteers at CovdLine has been a positive experience. The retired physicians and medical students who have had rotations put on hold due to the pandemic, in particular, have been happy to make people feel comfortable asking for help.
“It’s heartwarming to see these retired doctors work with these up-and-coming doctors. It’s a special kind of connection between a seasoned doctor who has just retired and doesn’t quite want to give it up and the students who are eager to start helping people,” he said.
It sounds like a simple fix to what seems to be a growing cause for concern especially amidst a pandemic, but there will always be naysayers.
“A lot of pushback I get is, ‘Well how can you do a doctor’s visit over the phone?’” Emdur said. “I have actually heard this from a lot of our volunteers, but once they do some of these visits they realize how valuable it is for people to have a medical professional they can discuss symptoms with. They just want to get some information or reassurance and get resources if they need to.”
Surprisingly since launching, CovidLine has only referred less than 20% of callers to in-person care. Most patients are seeking reassurance about COVID-19 or guidance on how to handle simple medical concerns they’d rather not trouble the health system with.
“If you’re just using a nurse line or Google, you could end up in serious trouble. Our main goal in all of this is to prevent any kind of surge on the healthcare system. We’re trying to keep people out of emergency rooms unless they need to go,” Emdur said. “I’m a very strong supporter of telemedicine. I really do believe the way to have healthy populations is through primary care and access to doctors and medical professionals. Through Clinica Colorado, we plan to continue with telemedicine even after COVID-19. Taking care of people outside of the traditional office is going to be here to stay. My hypothesis is that telehealth is going to be the new normal for most things.”
As for helping undocumented immigrants and the uninsured receive treatment, Emdur says helping them is crucial to overcoming this pandemic.
“The most inexpensive way to care for people is with prevention. In order to prevent disease, you need to have strong primary care. In our current system, if you don’t have any access because you are undocumented and you get really sick, you end up in the emergency room, which ends up being the biggest cost burden to our society. By law, everyone who shows up in the emergency room has to be treated. In order to decrease costs for the whole society, we need to make sure we’re a healthier society,” he said.
In addition to offering free COVID-19 screening and telemedicine services, CovidLine also provides callers with mental health resources and services. Volunteer therapists and psychologists are also available to offer guidance to anyone struggling. For Emdur, it’s important that callers know they have someone they can count on to just point them in the right direction to get treatment or talk through this crazy time.
“We need to take it one day at a time. It’s a scary time and a stressful time and we can help,” he said.
To reach CovidLine, call 720-902-9449 or the toll-free number at 1-855-963-3721.