On the Front (Phone) Lines: Results of a COVID-19 Hotline

J Am Board Fam Med. 2021 Feb;34(Suppl):S95-S102. doi: 10.3122/jabfm.2021.S1.200237.


Background: Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and the associated coronavirus disease of 2019 (COVID-19) have presented immense challenges for health care systems. Many regions have struggled to adapt to disruptions to health care practice and use systems that effectively manage the demand for services.

Methods: This was a cohort study using electronic health records at a health care system in northeast Ohio that examined the effectiveness of the first 5 weeks of a 24/7 physician-staffed COVID-19 hotline including social care referrals for patients required to self-isolate. We describe clinical diagnosis, patient characteristics (age, sex race/ethnicity, smoking status, insurance status), and visit disposition. We use logistic regression to evaluate associations between patient characteristics, visit disposition and subsequent emergency department use, hospitalization, and SARS-Cov-2 PCR testing.

Participants: In 5 weeks, 10,112 patients called the hotline (callers). Of these, 4213 (42%) were referred for a physician telehealth visit (telehealth patients). Mean age of callers was 42 years; 67% were female, 51% white, and 46% were on Medicaid/uninsured.

Results: Common caller concerns included cough, fever, and shortness of breath. Most telehealth patients (79%) were advised to self-isolate at home, 14% were determined to be unlikely to have COVID-19, 3% were advised to seek emergency care, and 4% had miscellaneous other dispositions. A total of 287 patients (7%) had a subsequent emergency department visit, and 44 (1%) were hospitalized with a COVID-19 diagnosis. Of the callers, 482 (5%) had a COVID-19 test reported, with 69 (14%) testing positive. Among patients advised to stay at home, 83% had no further face-to-face visits. In multivariable results, only a physician recommendation to seek emergency care was associated with emergency department use (odds ratio = 4.73, 95% confidence interval = 1.37-16.39, P = .014). Only older age was associated with having a positive test result. Patients with social needs and interest in receiving help were offered services to meet their needs including food deliveries (n = 92), behavioral health telephone visits (n = 49), and faith-based comfort calls from pastoral care personnel (n = 37).

Conclusions and relevance: Robust, physician-directed telehealth services can meet a wide range of clinical and social needs during the acute phase of a pandemic, conserving scarce resources such as personal protective equipment and testing supplies and preventing the spread of infections to patients and health care workers.

Keywords: COVID-19; Cohort Studies; Health Care Systems; Hotlines; Logistic Models; Ohio; Pandemics; Telemedicine.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • COVID-19 / diagnosis
  • COVID-19 / epidemiology*
  • COVID-19 Testing / statistics & numerical data
  • Cohort Studies
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Hospitalization / statistics & numerical data
  • Hotlines / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Ohio / epidemiology
  • Pandemics
  • Primary Health Care / organization & administration
  • Referral and Consultation / organization & administration
  • Referral and Consultation / statistics & numerical data*
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Telemedicine / methods*
  • Telemedicine / statistics & numerical data