New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) editors discussed the recent UnitedHealth Group study of self-administered COVID-19 testing – and they were optimistic that the results of the study would transform testing for the coronavirus.

“This does look like a fairly reproducible, fairly sensitive way of testing, which is much more convenient and less expensive than the approach we’re using now,” said Journal Editor-in-Chief Eric Rubin, speaking on the NEJM podcast.

"This does look like a fairly reproducible, fairly sensitive way of testing, which is much more convenient and less expensive than the approach we’re using now."

ERIC RUBIN EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE

 

Lindsey Baden, deputy editor of the Journal, added that the UnitedHealth Group test results could pave the way for “much simpler” COVID-19 testing, such as tongue sampling. “And that is really important because it has the potential to lower the barrier to more frequent testing of people at risk” for COVID-19, he said.

Rubin noted that the UnitedHealth Group study found self-administered swab tests accurately detected COVID-19 in more than 90% of positive patients. “The acceptability of testing might improve so it’s going to be easier to convince people to get these tests over and over as well,” he said.

Simpler, self-administered COVID-19 tests also reduce the current, multi-step “choreography” of testing, said Baden, referring to his own COVID-19 testing experience. “I had to have an appointment. I had to rearrange my schedule and to wait in line,” he recalled. “One could imagine that if I were able to do it myself and just drop off the sample, perhaps through the mail, one could imagine the increase in accessibility.”

Behind the UnitedHealth Group Study

The current COVID-19 test regimen requires a trained health care worker to collect samples from deep inside the patient’s nasal cavity. The process requires the use of personal protective equipment, is uncomfortable for the patient, and puts unnecessary strain on the health care system. The patient-administered testing method is significantly less invasive, allowing patients to swab the front part of the nostril and mid-nose.

The Food and Drug Administration updated its guidance based on the UnitedHealth Group research, allowing patients nationwide to self-administer swab tests for COVID-19.

No testing regimen is 100% accurate, the NEJM editors noted. However, the ease of self-administered COVID-19 testing helps those “who need repeated sampling because initial sampling may for one reason or another not be considered definitive,” Baden said.

With self-administered COVID-19 testing, Rubin added, “it becomes much easier to think about doing testing in settings like businesses and schools and such. This really could change how available testing is and how we put testing into any algorithm for reopening.”

Read more of our COVID-19 response.

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