How self-diagnostics can cut healthcare costs and save Lives

I’m a child of the ’60s. Which means I’m a big fan of the Jetsons, everyone’s favorite space-age family. They had flying cars, jetpacks and TV wrist watches. They also had great online healthcare. When little Elroy was sick, a 3D monitor would pop up in the living room and the doctor would appear on the screen. He’d ask Elroy to stick his out his tongue, diagnose his illness, prescribe a medicine and tell him to stay home from school for a day.

Well, we’ve reached a point where such futuristic medical care is no longer out of reach. It’s here. Thanks to telehealth and consumer-facing healthcare applications, we now have access to medical care in our own homes. And not a moment too soon.

Just look at the numbers. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the global medical GDP is $8.3 trillion, of which the U.S. spends nearly $4 trillion. This means that here in the U.S. we’ve got a real spending problem when it comes to healthcare. In fact, we spend more than twice as much on healthcare per person as other wealthy nations.

Why is our spending so high? One reason is that according to Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, only five percent of the population accounted for nearly half of healthcare spending in the U.S. These are mostly patients with chronic conditions who are constantly in and out of the hospital. It doesn’t have to be this way. If the medical issues of these patients were properly monitored and cared for, the patients would not have to frequent the hospital.

One way to achieve this is to promote self-managed healthcare via telehealth, and self-managed diagnostic home tests for illnesses like influenza, pneumonia, malaria and even Covid-19. This kind of self-testing is not unheard of. For instance, there are more than 400 million people in the world with diabetes. These patients are one of the largest managed-care populations in the world—and they are a real success story, as they measure their own blood glucose levels and inject themselves with the exact right amount of insulin at the exact time they need it, which greatly reduces hospitalizations.

Blood glucose monitoring is a good model to use when we look at other areas where we can cut costs and improve outcomes via telehealth. Let’s take heart conditions. Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) are the leading cause of death globally, claiming nearly 18 million lives each year. What if these patients could use technology to measure and manage their conditions?

Now they can. Pairing spectral sensors with lateral flow and digital capabilities makes it possible to create self-administered tests that are easy to read and error-free. Such spectral sensor solutions leverage LED lighting to uncover the qualitative and quantitative composition of a wide variety of materials and substances—and instantly provide relevant and actionable data.

These kinds of rapid, accurate and cost-effective testing solutions can be game-changers, since they can help bring a host of medical issues under control.

Self-administered lateral flow testing can reduce costs in the system while also saving lives. Let’s look at diabetes again. Self-managed care on the patient end has helped reduce the fatality rate for diabetes patients significantly, since the ’60s and ’70s.

Self-testing can be extended across a wide range of conditions. Indeed, better, faster, easier self-testing can be brought to patients with every category of disease. Such widespread early detection will not only save lives but reduce costs. That’s why it’s essential to bring this care to the home via telehealth—to enable earlier detection, earlier intervention, and in the case of diseases like Covid-19, earlier isolation, to limit the spread.

To do this, we need the government to promote telehealth and app-based self-testing that does not necessarily require the assistance of a doctor. Online professionals can do the front-end screening and monitoring virtually at a significant cost reduction. This will also promote early intervention and better outcomes. For instance, if a disease like pneumonia is caught in the first 48 hours, the outcome is almost always full recovery.

Let’s say you wake up in the morning with a scratchy throat. You do a home test, supervised on a telehealth app to ensure it’s done correctly. The sample is diagnosed for strep, which then alerts your regular doctor or healthcare team that you’ve tested positive. From there, a prescription is written for you and within 24 to 48 hours you are back in action.

Better still, self-administered lateral flow technology can give you quantitative results. It can show not only whether you’re sick, but exactly how sick you are. What is the viral load in your body? If your viral load is excessively high, you can be advised to go straight to the hospital. But if it’s low, there are interventions you can do at home to keep it from getting worse. And in the not-too-distant future, you can even be prescribed a personalized dosage of medicine based on your precise viral load.

The call to action is that point-of-care testing needs to move to the home and it needs to be supported by a Medicaid or Medicare billing code to support insurance coverage and payment for the testing. Covid-19 should absolutely be a tipping point for this kind of self-testing. Because the way to reduce costs in healthcare is to test early and test often.

I, for one, propose that the U.S. government take a leadership position when it comes to self-testing by pushing for billing codes that allow healthcare companies to offer these types of services. The good news is that the technology is already here. We just need insightful political leadership to bring this new healthcare approach to the general population. When we have it, we can reduce costs, and save lives.  Now, about getting that jetpack…

Photo: VioletaStoimenova, Getty Images