COVID-19 Research Q&A Series: Dr. Richard Lester
Dr. Richard Lester’s research team is trying to find out how effective a mobile app is in providing long-range support for COVID-19 patients who are self-isolating at home.
Richard Lester, MD, FRCPC, is an infectious diseases specialist at Vancouver General Hospital and an associate professor in Global Health at the University of British Columbia. In February 2020, his international research team received a grant from CIHR’s 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) rapid research funding competition to study the effectiveness of a mobile application in providing virtual support for COVID-19 patients isolating at home.
Does your research stem from previous work you’ve done providing virtual support for patients? Can you explain?
During my post-doc fellowship, I did global health research in Kenya in the area of HIV and we came up with the idea of using mobile phones to stay in contact with patients. From that work, we launched a social enterprise start-up called WelTel, and now we’re studying the WelTel application’s effectiveness for monitoring and supporting COVID-19 patients and their contacts. We’re also using the WelTel app to study security issues related to digital health care delivery and the best ways to communicate with patients over their cellphones.
How does the app work?
It uses an open template format that focuses on the patient rather than the condition. This means we can easily shift the app’s settings between HIV, asthma, a chronic disease or any condition. By sending patients text messages, hearing about their specific concerns and providing other kinds of support, we can be flexible and drive behaviour change. One great benefit with the WelTel app is that primary health care providers can easily use it by logging into a patient dashboard and providing whatever support they need to. Also, the app uses an open language format rather than checklists, which means patients can communicate in detail about issues that matter to them.
How did you pivot the app specifically for COVID-19?
When COVID-19 hit, I read about the importance of home isolation, which is stressful for people and can lead to mental health issues. We spent about an hour adjusting the app’s settings to provide support for individuals in isolation, which includes connecting them to their care providers via a dashboard. The provider can review each patient’s specific issues and address them over text, or through a phone call or video chat. The WelTel app also does automated check-ins, which saves time. If a nurse checks in over the phone, it can take 50 to 100 times longer to get through a long patient roster.
How far have you come in your research?
We’ve done rapid deployment of the WelTel app for COVID-19 with good uptake in British Columbia, Rwanda, Kenya and the U.K. Now, we’re focusing on learning about the best ways to communicate with patients, which will inform how we provide care in later stages of this pandemic. Virtual care may be an efficient, cost-effective way to provide public health monitoring and support for patients and contacts of COVID-19, and future emerging communicable pathogens.