Georgia Tech researchers create COVID-19 tool to help doctors spot 'false negative' patients

Two months into the COVID-19 outbreak in Georgia, the demand for diagnostic testing still far outweighs the supply of test kits and the protective personal equipment nurses need to wear while conducting testing.

Piedmont Healthcare infectious disease specialist Dr. Bronwen Garner is in charge of COVID-19 testing for her system's 11 hospitals.

It's a constant challenge, she says, because of supply shortages.

“Having the inability to test everybody, because you’re out of swabs, or you’re out of test kits that week, or you don’t have enough masks for the nurses to wear to collect the swabs, it's kind of a different challenge each week, as we move through this," Dr. Garner says.

And, there is another challenge.

The rapid tests for COVID-19 aren't always reliable.

Dr. Pinar Keskinocak, Director of Georgia Tech’s Center for Health and Humanitarian Systems, says early research shows up to 30% of these diagnostic tests may come back with a “false negative” error.

A "false negative" indicates a person is not infected with a virus like COVID-19 when the person actually does have the disease.


Keskinocak says that error can lead people to take risks they would not take if they knew they were contagious.

“They’ll be less cautious about social distancing, they may interact with other people without wearing a mask, and they may spread the disease," she says.  "And, for some patients, their situation may worsen without treatment.  And, in the absence of timely treatment, they might even die.”

To help doctors figure out when to retest a “negative” patient, Keskinocak and her team took a paper-based algorithm created by Piedmont Healthcare doctors and turned it into a digital tool that walks physicians through a series of questions about the need for retesting.

The tool is embedded in Piedmont Healthcare's electronic medical records system.  

If a patient receives a negative test result but reports feeling ill, Dr. Garner says, the tool will walk the doctor through a series of questions.

It will ask if the patient has pneumonia or has had contact with someone infected with the virus.


If the answer to either question is “yes,” or the patient is at higher risk for exposure to or complications of the virus, the tool will suggest the physician isolate and retest the patient, Garner says.

If the answer is “no,” the tool may suggest the doctor avoid retesting the patient.

“What it’s helped the doctors do, is, to have more confidence in the test," Dr. Garner says.  "It tells you when you can really believe that negative result, and when to think twice.”

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