COVID-19: Dr. Curran Answers Questions in a Virtual Town Hall

PHOTO: U.S. Congressman Joe Kennedy III (left) and Dr. Michael J. Curran (right) chat during the ribbon-cutting ceremony for our Women’s Health Center in Dedham in the fall of 2017.

On Thursday, April 16, 2020, Dr. Michael J. Curran, our CEO, participated in a virtual Town Hall that U.S. Congressman Joe Kennedy III organized regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. Constituents from Kennedy's 4th congressional district were invited to listen and phone in with their questions.

Below are some highlights, including questions that Dr. Curran directly answered. (Editor's note: questions and answers have been lightly edited for flow/clarity. The above picture was taken from a previous event in the fall of 2017 for the ribbon cutting ceremony for our Women's Health Center in Dedham.)

QUESTION:I'm concerned about people returning to school and work when we know that people can carry this virus and be asymptomatic.

DR. CURRAN: The solution to any problem, especially where the basis involves people's fears and anxieties, is through education and knowledge. We need to continue to gain more knowledge about how this virus is spreading and about how contagious it really is. We need to know more about the asymptomatic carriers. It's still undetermined how many asymptomatic carriers there are. I've seen reports that say that there could be one to two for every person who tests positive for the disease. And I've seen reports that are lower.

So that's where the testing comes in, and thank goodness we live in an America in 2020, because I've never witnessed in my medical career such fast paced movement from a lot of these companies that you see like Roche and Abbott Labs who are turning out almost every week, it seems, a new testing format and working on scaling it up to meet the needs of the population. So I'm very confident that our biotech technology industry in America is going to rise to the challenge over the next couple of weeks and provide us those tools that we need.

And the last thing I would say is—and it's been repeated millions of times; everybody's heard it: WASH YOUR HANDS. The number one tool we have to fight the spread of this virus is handwashing, and it can't be stated enough: you need to keep washing your hands. That's the number one thing we can do. But as we get more testing and learn more over the next week or two, I think it will go a long way to not only keeping us safe, but also alleviating people's fears.

QUESTION: My question is concerning the state of the hospitals and what they might look like after the pandemic passes.

DR. CURRAN: As far as your local hospitals, I think the worry people have is 'will my local hospital have to close, will they survive, and will the doctors that I've counted on being in my community, will they still be there?'

And I would say wholeheartedly the answer to those questions is yes and yes.

The hospitals right now are dealing with a system of triage in that we want to make sure that we have resources to take care of the sickest people first. So that's why we're delaying elective cases. But remember—those elective cases didn't go away. They're all going to need to be done at some point.

When we get on the other side of the peak of this, then the hospitals will begin to ease those restrictions and we'll get back to doing our elective surgeries, which is a big part of the cash flow of a hospital.

So what the hospitals are going to be dealing with right now is primarily a cash-flow issue. With the stimulus package that was passed, there is relief for the hospitals to get through this. So we will certainly weather the storm.

As far as your local doctors and people like myself—we'll be fine. We'll get through it. We'll be there for you on the other side of this. As for how our hospitals will look after this, for the most part, they're going to be the same, but you will see some differences. A lot of it's going to be on the sanitation side and the hygiene side, and it's going to make it better. You're going to see better hospitals. You're going to see better places to receive care because we're learning a lot of things that we didn't know we could do better and we're doing them better now.

So I'm pretty optimistic about where we're going to be coming through this. As far as economically, this is just a cash-flow disruption. We'll be okay.

QUESTION: I have a question regarding the availability of antibody testing. I was pretty sick in mid-February. I tested negative for the flu. However, looking back on it now, I had all the symptoms of COVID-19. So my question is this: will testing be available to see if you do have the antibodies?

DR. CURRAN: I don't know the answer to your question specifically. I know that we have been looking at antibody testing to see if there's a practical way to do it for our GBU employees and doctors to see exactly what you're talking about: if they've been exposed or if they're asymptomatic carriers.

The problem that GBU is having is likely the same problem you're noticing: there are a lot of frauds out there and they may not be selling a legitimate test or they might be selling tests that don't work. And it's kind of hard to figure it out which is which because it's not an area that's very tightly controlled by the FDA, at least not right now.

What we've decided to do at Greater Boston Urology is this: we're in a little bit of a watch and wait mode. That said, we're very confident that soon we'll have tests that are going to be fairly accurate, fairly reliable, and hopefully fairly inexpensive. I think there's a lot of promise; it's just not ready for being scaled out to the public yet.

QUESTION: My question is regarding telemedicine and insurance reimbursement. I think it's been so helpful in terms of both physical and mental health issues for everyone to have access. And my question is do you have any idea how long the insurance will continue to reimburse for this?

DR. CURRAN: At Greater Boston Urology, we've been interested in telehealth for several years now. We had looked at many different platforms and options, and our stumbling block in implementation was always the reimbursement. We had systems in place from the payers, both the private sector and the public sector, where the reimbursement just wasn't practical for telemedicine because it didn't cover costs.

So when Governor Baker mandated payment parity on telemedicine, we were up and running the next day because our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Michael Geffin, had everything ready to go—we were just waiting for the day that it made economic sense.

Telemedicine has been a tremendous asset for us. We have already done close to one thousand telemedicine visits in the last three weeks now. So that's a thousand people that didn't have to go to emergency rooms, a thousand people who were able to see a doctor and get the care they needed.

You bring up the mental health aspect. One of the big worries that we're going to see from this social isolation is going to be cases of depression and people who've lost jobs. Telemedicine is a very efficient, very effective, very good way to deliver medicine. It reduces costs.

When we come out of this, if the general public makes it known to their insurers that this is a service that they want—well, on the private side, these insurers are in business to sell products that people want. And so if you make it known to the private side that this is something we want to continue . . . I'm pretty confident that this is something we will see continue.

QUESTION: My mother lives in an assisted living facility and I'm very concerned about her health and wellbeing. Is there any way that the number of cases for both residents and workers at the facility are able to be shared with family members?

DR. CURRAN: The HIPAA laws would prohibit any disclosure that is identified to a specific individual. However, it is allowable (if the facility chooses) to disclose number of cases, number of suspected cases, number of patients who've had to be sent to a hospital.

For example, one of the hospitals that many of our doctors work at is the MetroWest Medical Center. We've been getting daily updates on how many patients are in the ICU, how many patients in the hospital have COVID-19, and how many suspected cases.

So, the bottom line: facilities can choose to publish the raw numbers of data (it's voluntary, however).

Remember, GBU is here for you!

If you have a question concerning COVID-19, leave a comment and we'll try to address it in a future blog post.

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