The ongoing pandemic has greatly accelerated the rise of digital technology in healthcare.

As the pandemic continues to sweep across the world, causing unprecedented disruption to the economy and posing a constant threat of overwhelming healthcare services, the need for digital transformation has never been greater. Already, our everyday lives have been changed beyond measure by stay-at-home orders and closed schools and businesses. All the while, even highly effective healthcare services in developed countries are buckling under the strain.

But with vaccination now underway in many countries, there is finally hope on the horizon. Technology is critical to scaling the monumental task of vaccinating billions of people, as well as the testing that will be needed for years to come to isolate and mitigate localized outbreaks. Emerging solutions like artificial intelligence are helping to scale testing and vaccination and automate critical manufacturing processes, to name a few examples.

What are COVID-19 tests, and how do they work?

While a vaccine is the most powerful weapon against the coronavirus, testing remains a vital part of the overall strategy. Regular testing will continue to help, even once the pandemic has been brought under control. Not only does it allow epidemiologists to track outbreaks and get them under control before they spread across the wider community – they can also help test the efficacy of vaccines. Furthermore, testing helps those who cannot be vaccinated due to medical or other reasons.

COVID-19 tests broadly fall into two main categories. There are tests designed to diagnose a current infection, and others to determine whether a patient previously had SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Diagnostic tests for current infections include molecular testing and antigen testing, while antibody tests detect past infections.

Molecular testing

Molecular testing involves taking a sample of saliva or other bodily fluid using a nasal or throat swab. The sample is then analyzed on a molecular level to detect genetic material belonging to the virus. By far the most common method is the RT-PCR (reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction) test.

The FDA has also authorized a direct-to-consumer molecular testing system, allowing patients to collect samples at home before shipping them off to the laboratory for analysis. The testing kits do not require any prescription.

RT-PCR testing has become the gold standard, since it is the most accurate. According to research curated by the CDC, RT-PCR tests yielded a sensitivity of 80% and a specificity of 98.9% in symptomatic patients. In asymptomatic patients, these figures stand at 41.2% and 98.4% respectively. Moreover, these figures give the testing a confidence level of 95%, making them far more reliable than other methods.

Antigen testing

Antigen testing is also done using a nasal or throat swab. It works by identifying fragments of the viral protein, known as antigens. Antigen tests are readily available from pharmacies and other medical facilities without a prescription, so they can be used at home. They also deliver much faster results, since samples do not need to be analyzed in a laboratory. In this respect, they work rather like a rapid strep test or pregnancy test, delivering results in minutes.

The main drawback of antigen testing is that it is not as accurate as RT-PCR testing. Because of this, the FDA does not recommend relying on it entirely. Negative antigen test results should ideally be verified with a RT-PCR test, since false negative results occur much more frequently than they do with molecular tests.

Antibody testing

Antibody testing determines whether patients have previously been infected with the virus by detecting antibodies in the blood. Because this method requires a blood sample, it can only be done at a medical facility. Results are typically available within a few days. Accuracy rates vary heavily depending on when the test is taken, due to the fact it takes a week or two for the body produce antibodies following an infection. Antibody levels can decay after a few months, making it uncertain how long immunity lasts.

How are digital platforms enabling mass-testing?

Without digital technology, it would be all but impossible to scale with the massive demand of testing and vaccinating billions of people around the world.

Thanks to digitized healthcare, it is now possible to complete digital intake forms and schedule online consultations. For example, popular video conferencing platform Zoom has launched a plan that caters specifically for the needs of the healthcare sector. Now fully HIPAA-compliant to protect patient privacy, general practitioners and other healthcare professionals can use Zoom, among other platforms, for holding online consultations. Doing so allows them to reduce the risk of spreading the disease to both themselves and their patients.

Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has greatly accelerated the demand for telemedicine. When it comes to COVID-19 testing, patients can now attend online appointments and use their home testing kits to collect specimens with real-time guidance and supervision. They can then send the specimen package using a specialized return shipping container provided by the lab and receive results by email or text message. It typically takes up to 24 hours to receive a result, which is far quicker than it is without the help of digital technology.

Similar methods will prove instrumental in rolling out mass vaccination campaigns as well. In fact, many countries are using the same systems they have been relying on for months in their testing and contact-tracing strategies for vaccinations. That said, the need for regular testing, especially in high-risk environments, such as healthcare facilities themselves, will stay for the foreseeable future.

How is SDI Labs using technology to help fight COVID-19?

SDI Labs depends heavily on digital technology to meet patient needs during the pandemic. Our web-based form allows patients to order RT-PCR tests online, and we can supervise and guide patients through the home-testing process via Zoom. We can then communicate results to patients via email, while maintaining patient privacy according to HIPAA regulations.

We have also implemented an AI-based system to better identify false positives and negatives from point-of-care antigen testing kits. This is especially important, given that antigen testing has a relatively low accuracy rate in the region of 60 to 80%. Our proprietary system analyzes patient intake data to determine the likelihood of patients being negative or positive, before matching those insights alongside actual test results.

Moreover, our labs management system allows us to scale capacity according to patient demand, while our integrated customer relationship management platform allows us to deliver faster and more efficient patient support.

Final words

While it will likely be some years before the pandemic can truly be declared over everywhere in the world, the digitization of healthcare will only become more important. The pandemic has simply highlighted the preexisting need to streamline healthcare and provide better outcomes, and these priorities are always going to be the primary goals of the sector.

SDI Labs relies on digital innovation to adapt and scale to the rapidly evolving needs of today’s healthcare sector. Our proven four-step COVID-19 testing model is helping us achieve optimal outcomes, with test results delivered by post or email within 24 hours. Order your test today.