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Automated text message system for negative Covid-19 results should be in place by end of week

Dr Cillian de Gascun has said work on automation and computer systems should help reduce turnaround times.

Image: Shutterstock/Tero Vesalainen

AN AUTOMATED text messaging system to inform people of negative Covid-19 results is expected to be in place at the end of this week. 

There have been concerns about the turnaround time in the sample, test and contact trace system with some people reporting a wait of seven days or more for their result. 

The HSE has now committed to a target of three days for the whole process in 90% of cases. Currently the median turnaround time from sample to the start of contact tracing is five days. 

Earlier in the week, Dr Cillian de Gascun, director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory (NVRL) at UCD, said manual errors and a lack of integration or standardisation of computer systems had contributed to delays for those receiving their results.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, de Gascun said “most of the hard work” has now been done on these systems. He said once the work is complete and all the necessary tests are carried out to ensure they function properly, this should contribute significantly to reducing delays. 

Part of this work, due to be completed by the end of this week, is an automation of text messages to people who have texted negative for the virus. 

“We’re looking at removing manual steps that still remain – it was appropriate at the time to have manual steps because we were building the system, but these are areas we can improve and make quicker,” he said. “If we have fewer manual steps, we can have fewer errors so you can see why automation is very much our friend in all of this.”

Before this, the text messages to those who texted negative were sent manually by a person working in contact tracing. 

De Gascun explained that in hospital laboratories and in the NVRL at UCD, it would not be the norm to text a patient their results. Usually, the result would go to a GP or a hospital clinician who is looking after the patient. 

“In normal circumstances, if the NVRL had decided we were going to start texting all of the results from tests to people it probably would have been a six to 12 month project. We’ve had to scale up and make these adjustments very quickly,” he explained.

“Our lab management system didn’t have a place for the patient’s mobile number, that had to be created. So even if mobile numbers had been collected along the way, there was nowhere for them to go. 

“Sending results by text is not a standard way of working but it’s ideally suited to a situation like there where we have such a high proportion of results being negative.”

De Gascun said he acknowledges how stressful the delays have been for people.

“I did medicine and I do care about my patients. My staff in here, we’re all very conscious of the fact that every sample we get, there’s a patient behind that, a person with family and we don’t know what they’re going through,” he said.

“They are treated almost as if they’re one of our own. Everybody has their own medical history and their own life. We don’t like making mistakes – no one sets out to make mistakes – but just given the time pressures and the capacity we were trying to get to, there have been missteps along the way, not for want of people in the labs wanting to do their jobs. ”

Although he said he is “optimistic” about what has been achieved in Ireland so far, he is “apprehensive” about what the next steps will bring.

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“We’re looking at other countries who are ahead of us, wondering ‘is there going to be another wave or surge?’ because a virus doesn’t typically just go away. 

“Will it come back in the summer or in the winter? If it comes back in flu season will it put pressure on the system? So I have a certain amount of positivity in relation to what we’ve achieved but there’s that apprehension about what the next few months holds from a virus perspective. “ 

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