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  • Experts have introduced a tech program that reduces death in COVID-19 patients. 
  • The death rate was 68 percent lower for those in COVID Watch compared with others.
  • Only 5 out of 3,448 patients in COVID Watch died within 60 days of enrollment.

Nearly 2 years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States is still dealing with tens of thousands of COVID-19 cases every day. Currently, an average of around 78,000 cases are reported daily.

In about 90 percent of COVID-19 cases, people are usually asked to quarantine themselves and monitor their symptoms at home. 

But that can be a confusing and frightening proposition for people who are unsure what symptoms to look for and when they need to head to the hospital.

In order to help these people, the University of Pennsylvania Health System introduced remote watching to assist the emergency departments in helping patients with COVID-19. 

What is the COVID Watch system?

Researchers at Penn Medicine developed the COVID-19 Watch, which is a simple text message program that offers all-day-long clinical support to patients. 

Early last year, at the beginning of the pandemic, Penn Medicine organized a study that enrolled 3,448 people with COVID-19 into the watch service.

One of the key functions of the COVID Watch was to prompt patients to seek care in the emergency department as soon as their condition was deteriorating. People could keep in touch with their care team via text message, and healthcare professionals could text reminders to people who were convalescing at home.

“At the start of the pandemic, when the world’s attention was focused on patients in intensive care units (ICUs) and on ventilators, we recognized that for every patient with COVID in an ICU, there might be 50 people with COVID in the community,” said Dr. M. Kit Delgado, assistant professor of emergency medicine and epidemiology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.  

The researchers found that mortality was significantly lower in the watch group compared to the control group.

“The mortality rate was 68 percent lower among those in COVID Watch compared with usual care,” explained Delgado. “Only five out of 3,448 patients in COVID Watch died within 60 days of being enrolled, compared to 16 of the 4,337 otherwise equivalent patients outside of the program.”

In the control group, one-third of deaths occurred before a person went to the hospital. No one in the COVID Watch group died outside the hospital.

Early detection of deteriorating symptoms is key

Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, said that intervening early for high-risk patients was key.

“Spotting a patient’s COVID symptom earlier can lead to more focused emergency room (ER) admissions and rapid administration of lifesaving medications such as dexamethasone or remdesivir,” said Glatter.  

He pointed out that patients in the COVID Watch group arrived at the hospital 2 days earlier for treatment compared to those in the control group.

“This type of texting program could also lower rates of readmission by improving communication with patients and clinicians before a serious problem arises,” Glatter added. “It may also reduce length of admission by allowing COVID-19 patients to be discharged home sooner.”

Will this program be available in other hospitals around the U.S.?

Dr. Monica Gandhi, professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), feels that this “watch program” may be very useful for patients with other illnesses besides COVID-19. 

“I can see it being implemented for patients with influenza or other respiratory viruses,” said Gandhi. “For example, a patient with chest pain may be [discharged] from the ER because they don’t have any EKG changes. But if they have risk factors, then this automated text program is perfect to make sure their health is tracked even at home.”

Delgado said that it’s likely that the program could be used by other hospitals around the country to help patients with COVID-19.

“We think it’s something other health systems or hospitals could mimic for similar crises or conditions they’re working with, and our model provides a roadmap,” he added.