Background: We developed a self-triage web application for COVID-19 symptoms, which was launched in France in March 2020, when French health authorities recommended all patients with suspected COVID-19 call an emergency phone number.
Objective: Our objective was to determine if a self-triage tool could reduce the burden on emergency call centers and help predict increasing burden on hospitals.
Methods: Users were asked questions about their underlying conditions, sociodemographic status, postal code, and main COVID-19 symptoms. Participants were advised to call an emergency call center if they reported dyspnea or complete loss of appetite for over 24 hours. Data on COVID-19-related calls were collected from 6 emergency call centers and data on COVID-19 hospitalizations were collected from Santé Publique France and the French Ministry of Health. We examined the change in the number of emergency calls before and after the launch of the web application.
Results: From March 17 to April 2, 2020, 735,419 questionnaires were registered in the study area. Of these, 121,370 (16.5%) led to a recommendation to call an emergency center. The peak number of overall questionnaires and of questionnaires leading to a recommendation to call an emergency center were observed on March 22, 2020. In the 17 days preceding the launch of the web application, emergency call centers in the study area registered 66,925 COVID-19-related calls and local hospitals admitted 639 patients for COVID-19; the ratio of emergency calls to hospitalizations for COVID-19 was 104.7 to 1. In the 17 days following the launch of the web application, there were 82,347 emergency calls and 6009 new hospitalizations for COVID-19, a ratio of 13.7 calls to 1 hospitalization (chi-square test: P<.001).
Conclusions: The self-triage web application launch was followed by a nearly 10-fold increase in COVID-19-related hospitalizations with only a 23% increase in emergency calls. The peak of questionnaire completions preceded the peak of COVID-19-related hospitalizations by 5 days. Although the design of this study does not allow us to conclude that the self-triage tool alone contributed to the alleviation of calls to the emergency call centers, it does suggest that it played a role, and may be used for predicting increasing burden on hospitals.
Trial registration: ClinicalTrials.gov NCT04331171; https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT04331171.
Keywords: COVID-19; application; digital health; emergency call center; emergency medical services; mobile phone; questionnaires; self-triage; smartphone; website.
©Simon Galmiche, Eve Rahbe, Arnaud Fontanet, Aurélien Dinh, François Bénézit, François-Xavier Lescure, Fabrice Denis. Originally published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (http://www.jmir.org), 23.11.2020.