The founder of just launched a self-triage tool for COVID-19 

Aaron Patzer is perhaps best known as the founder of personal financial management tool

But now, he’s lending his tech expertise to another concern: the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Patzer and Vital—the healthcare company he co-founded in 2017—turned their focus to the spread of the novel coronavirus in recent weeks. Friday, they launched, a free tool patients can use to self-triage for the novel coronavirus before seeking care. 

Vital is a digital platform for emergency care, and Patzer told FierceHealthcare that background made a tool for COVID-19 a logical next step. 

Aaron Patzer
Aaron Patzer (Vital)

“All of the things lined up, and I felt it had to be us,” he said. 

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Patzer co-founded Vital with his brother-in-law Justin Schrager, M.D., an emergency physician at Emory Healthcare in Atlanta. Patzer said they came together to develop the software after he witnessed firsthand how much time outside of the hospital Schrager spent transcribing medical notes and inputting information to the electronic health record. 

Vital has been deployed in four Atlanta-area hospitals, with 20 more facilities beginning integration, Patzer said. As such, the team had a pipeline to the industry and was already familiar enough with Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act compliance to begin tackling COVID-19. 

He said the Vital team turned its focus to the newly launched Coronavirus Checker several weeks ago. Physicians at Emory played a critical role in designing the tool, ensuring the team had access to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other experts on the evolving virus. 

A screenshot from Vital's new COVID-19 self-triage tool
A screenshot from the tool (Vital)

Patzer’s team also worked closely with health literacy experts who assisted in designing the questionnaire in a way that would be simple for anyone to use. 

“There was no really good tool to tell if you have coronavirus as it’s quite hard to distinguish from common cold or flu. We decided to build one,” he said. 

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The project was hit with a brief shock in mid-March when President Donald Trump announced that Google was planning to launch a similar tool nationally, Patzer said. Verily, the life sciences arm of Google parent Alphabet, later clarified that it was testing such a tool in the Bay Area but it was not ready for a nationwide rollout. 

So they soldiered on through to the launch Friday, Patzer said. 

The tool is accessible from any device, and a user who undergoes the screening answers a series of questions about symptoms, their age and their zip code or country if they live internationally. 

From that point, users are stratified into three risk categories: high-risk, intermediate-risk and low-risk. In each category they’re offered specific suggestions to proceed, with high-risk patients urged to seek immediate medical attention and low-risk instead told they can likely self-administer care at home. 

Patzer noted that the CDC launched a chatbot that serves a similar function in close proximity to Vital's launch. However, he said he believes the CDC's tool may be less welcoming to seniors and older users than the Coronavirus Checker.

And for this purpose, the more the merrier, he said.

"It’s certainly not a competition at a time like this," Patzer said.

Patzer said he and his team see the future of the tool in the geographic data. As more people self-triage, they gather more information about potential epicenters of the outbreak, making it easier to do predictive modeling. 

That data will be made publicly available, he said. 

“What we hope is that enough people self-triage so that we can see the people with matching coronavirus symptoms and see where the hot spots are geographically,” he said. “We can see that stuff potentially a week ahead of the statistics.”