Is It Covid, the Flu, or Something Else? This At-Home Test Kit Could Help You Find Out

It checks for three common winter illnesses and may help families avoid the ER

This fall and winter, the perfect storm of influenza A, influenza B, Covid and RSV—what some are calling a “tripledemic”—has slammed ERs, walk-in clinics and overworked family doctors. (Plus, an estimated 4.7 million Canadians over age 12 do not have a family doctor at all, according to Statistics Canada data.) This new at home testing product from Rockdoc promises to help patients determine what’s ailing them from the comfort of their own home.

We asked Samuel Gutman, an ER doctor and the founder of Rockdoc, to explain how their Cold and Flu Rescue Kit ($60) works. The kit is similar to a rapid antigen test for COVID, with swabs and cartridges, but can also check for influenza A or B, as well as strep infections.  He says that the test can complement—not replace—typical primary care with a physician and provides patients with more information at a time when ERs and doctors’ offices are overwhelmed.

Can you explain to me how the product works? I’ve got two little kids, and we’ve all had a cough we can’t seem to shake. It doesn’t seem serious enough to bother our family doctor about it—at least not yet. But at what point would I decide to go to your website and order up a test?

Everybody gets sick at least once or twice during the typical cold and flu season, so some people are electing to purchase the test kits in advance to have them on hand. Or, if you wake up sick or your child wakes up sick, and you don’t have a family doctor or can’t get an appointment, you can order the kit. Depending on where you are, you can get either an overnight courier or a same-day DoorDash delivery. The kit comes with a barcode that you can scan and get an appointment with a telehealth practitioner who will walk you through every step of the test. Then you get your results in 20 minutes. It’s very simple.

Then what happens?

Depending on the results, we’ll provide some recommendations or information on how to manage the illness. And then if you decide you need more information or want to ask questions, we coordinate a telehealth appointment with a physician on the same day. There may be treatment available—depending on the illness—if you get the diagnosis soon enough.

Okay, and what does it test for?

The kits include the tests for Covid, influenza A and B and strep throat. We also have an RSV product that’s in development, and that should be out in the next week.

(Related: Should You Get Another COVID Vaccine?)

Are the testing methods the same ones that we’re familiar with from using at-home Covid rapid tests—a cheek swab or a nasal swab, and a cartridge you drop the liquid into?

Yes, the cold and flu kits are the nasal swab and a throat swab. The RSV test is just a nasal swab. It’s very convenient. For kids especially, going to the ER or urgent care can be a scary environment, so being able to do it at home with a simple nasal swab is preferable.

Right. These days, you don’t want to be in the ER for hours and hours in the middle of the night—it’s always a judgment call whether to go in and brave it or not. And lots of family doctors, or even walk-ins, are booked up for weeks and weeks.

It’s a challenge to get in, and our goal is to provide people with information and to help them make decisions. Because that’s really what’s lacking: You don’t know what’s going on. You don’t know if your kid’s going to get worse or not. And with RSV, at some hospitals, the only way you get an RSV swab is if you get admitted. We’re providing people with more information.

The important thing, though, is that at no point do we want people to stay home if you’re really sick, or your kid is sick and needs to go to the hospital. This product shouldn’t get in the way of that. For those who can’t get to a physician, this is a way to access more information.

In a way, this also helps those with mobility challenges, childcare duties or limited access to transportation—it can be very hard to drop everything, take time off work and get to the doctor, especially if the doctor is far away. Or if you get sick at night, and your family doctor isn’t answering the phone.

Yes, we have people who fall ill on Friday and need to know whether they should cancel their business trip on Monday. If you’ve got a cold or sniffles, it’s probably going to get better in a day or two. But if you’ve got COVID or influenza, that’s going to be five to seven days.

The other thing that people aren’t aware of is that there is treatment available for influenza [antivirals like Tamiflu], and certainly there’s treatment available for strep throat [antibiotics]. At your doctor’s office, the swab for strep throat takes three days to come back and by that time you’re either worse, or they’ll prescribe antibiotics whether you needed them or not—and then we’re exposing people to antibiotics that they don’t need. Being able to get a proper diagnosis quickly enables more efficient and appropriate treatments.

(Related: 14 Virtual Care Services in Canada You Need to Know About)

How does the telehealth appointment work? You pay for the kit, but you don’t pay for the telehealth appointment after the test?

The telehealth appointments are covered by the provincial health plans. We try really hard to work within the public system—we’re trying to be complementary to the public system at all times. We’re providing service that’s adjacent to the system. We’re facilitating you getting an appointment when maybe you can’t get one elsewhere.

There’s been a lot of talk about the privatization of the Canadian healthcare system, and how it’s been chronically underfunded and neglected. So some people might look at this and think, “this is an equity issue. Not everyone can afford this test, and that’s not okay.” But there’s also the inequity of what happens when you can’t access health care at all, or don’t have a family doctor, or can’t wait in the ER for hours. I’m sure you’ve thought about that a lot.

Absolutely. The fact that these kits are available to anyone, anywhere, anytime, I think is an equity issue. It addresses it, as opposed to making it worse. The other way to look at this, actually, is that we’re increasing equity. And even in remote locations—since we ship the kits across Canada. In underserviced areas, these kits are providing people with information and the knowledge that they need.

That’s increasingly important as we see rural emergency rooms closing. In a small town, it can be a long drive to the nearest hospital.

Right. We’re health care people—we work in the public system as well. I was an ER doctor in North Vancouver for almost 30 years.  We’re working towards developing solutions and improved care for everybody. We’re trying to figure these things out that nobody seems to be able to figure out. For the last 50 years of public health care in Canada, the innovation just hasn’t been there. I’ve witnessed a lot of the challenges in the system and been really frustrated by the inability to effect change, for Canadians who can’t get the answers they need.

Pre-pandemic, the idea of doing a self-administered test like this at home just wasn’t really something I’d ever imagined. But now, when I’m packing for a trip, I throw a box of tests in my suitcase, of course. And we test ourselves and our kids at home all the time. Without COVID, do you think consumers would have been ready for this kind of product?

Yeah, I think it’s accelerated the change. But it’s not just the test: It’s the support, it’s the information around the test and the ability to take the results to a family doctor. We try to enable them to get the information and the actual care that they need.

Personally, I’m not interested in just selling people tests and saying, “go for it.” I’m trying to provide comprehensive care that meets all of the expectations and that’s complementary and collaborative with the system. You can do a test with us and then you get an emailed result, and then you can take your test results to your doctor if that’s what people want. We’re certainly not trying to poach people from their doctors or encourage them to go with our system, versus another way. It’s just providing information and choice so that people can make their own decisions on how they manage their health. With COVID [restrictions and telehealth], people are recognizing that there’s other ways to do it, and that they don’t always need to go into the doctor in person. In some ways, we can offload the family doctors to look after the people who really need it. And if we can be part of the solution, that’s awesome.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Next: The Best Over-the-Counter Cold and Flu Meds

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