Dr. Gregory Taylor
Chief Medical Officer at Switch Health
From COVID-19 diagnoses to other disease testing, technology can power and foster better patient outcomes and alleviate pressure on health care professionals.
It’s clear that Canadians, especially our over-burdened and exhausted health care workers, are keen to put the COVID-19 pandemic behind them and resume some sort of “normal” life. The pandemic has not only challenged us as individuals, but it has also made us actively re-evaluate access and outcomes in our health care systems. It pushed provincial decision-makers to expedite the adoption of innovative technologies and approaches to front-line health care. And thanks to these much-needed changes, it appears that the new “normal” will be quite different from the old.
Skilled health care professionals will always play an indispensable role in our country, but they’re a finite and precious resource that we must use wisely. We’ve learned from the pandemic that the smart use of technology can amplify the reach and efficiency of the systems they work in.
Diagnostics changed COVID-19 testing
Before the pandemic, both clinicians and patients didn’t have the ease of access to tools like virtual house calls, uploading personal photos for review, texting and prescribing from a different city, and self-testing. In fact, these tools weren’t only unheard of, they were also frowned upon by some. Switch Health, a Toronto-based health care company dedicated to providing better decentralized patient care, believes that these innovations create a very fundamental, and much-needed, shift in primary health care and will finally help transition our current model of care from a system-centred approach to one that is patient-centered, where patients are empowered to play a central role in their own care.
An example of this is decentralized or distributive testing. Who could’ve predicted that people would conduct supervised swabs for a novel virus through a secure telehealth portal using portable kits? Not only that, but people receive results within hours, all from the security of their own homes, ensuring that they don’t pose an infectious risk to others. Even that technology has been improved with self-administered test kits that can detect viral nucleic acid within minutes — almost like having a laboratory in your own home.
Technology implications for better health outcomes
This shift has incredible implications for how we diagnose and deal with infectious diseases in the new “normal” systems, such as influenza outbreaks, for example, but also for chronic diseases like cancer.
Women may soon be able to use self-administered vaginal swabs to detect human papillomavirus (HPV), which is the causative agent for virtually all cervical cancers. Since HPV usually presents without symptoms, self-administered swabs for HPV have the potential to greatly impact the prevention and early detection of cervical cancer.
Newborn infants in Canada routinely have tiny amounts of their blood placed on special paper, called dried blood spots (DBS), to test for several metabolic diseases that should be treated at birth. DBS technology is already being utilized to look for COVID-19 antibodies. With the appropriate research and validation underpinning it, this technology has the potential to test for a variety of other non-infectious diseases. The collection mechanism for DBS is simple, making it ideal for a virtual observed approach.
The benefits of these advancements are obvious, particularly in rural and remote locations and with hard-to-reach groups. Collecting and shipping DBSs on paper is inherently easier and less risky than extracting blood into traditional tubes.
We’ll still need those physical medical offices, clinics, and laboratories for the foreseeable future, but perhaps we can shorten line-ups and waitlists for patients while helping our exhausted health care professionals do their jobs more effectively with innovative technologies that reduce and facilitate their workload, while serving patients in a quick, convenient, safe, and secure way.
Dr. Gregory Taylor is a former Chief Public Health Officer for Canada and is currently Chief Medical Officer at Switch Health. He leads Switch Health’s growing team of telehealth professionals and advises on medical operations as the company continues to provide safe and reliable at-home and mobile COVID-19 testing and verification solutions to Canadians.