FEELING ILL? DON’T RUSH TO THE DOCTOR’S OFFICE!

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The spread of coronavirus is pushing people to seek medical advice—by phone.

The Swiss government’s coronavirus hotline, run by Basel-based Medgate, has logged about 20,000 calls over the past five weeks, especially since the disease arrived in Switzerland and Italy. The service employs 45 people, including 20 new recruits to help cope with the high volume.

People are asking about the symptoms of the new coronavirus and how to deal with suspected cases as well as about the risk of infection in Switzerland, Medgate spokesperson Céline Klauser told CNNMoney Switzerland.

Telemedicine is proving to be a valuable weapon in the fight against coronavirus in Switzerland and abroad, helping to protect doctors and nurses from exposure and ease the strain on healthcare system. Both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization are encouraging the use of telehealth tools. And the Swiss government this week updated its guidelines to recommend that people call before visiting a doctor or an emergency room.

Remote consultations can prevent crowded emergency departments and waiting rooms, says Antoine Geissbühler, head of telemedicine and eHealth at Hôpitaux Universitaires de Genève, where some of the coronavirus tests are being conducted. “It is essential to protect caregivers who are on the front line and therefore highly exposed to the virus.”

At least 54 people have been diagnosed with the infection in Switzerland, the Swiss health department said Wednesday. Around the world, at least 93,000 cases—about 3,200 of them fatal—have been confirmed.

Health insurer SWICA says its telemedicine service santé24 is handling about 1,250 calls a day, an increase of at least 20 percent since the first reports of coronavirus in Switzerland last week.

“People who suffer from coughing or influenza want to know whether they might have been infected with the coronavirus,” said Silvia Schnidrig, a spokeswoman for SWICA. “We go through questions with our clients, which often helps to reassure them when they show no signs of an illness and there are no evident risk factors.”

Health insurer Helsana, together with 24-hour telemedicine company Medi24, received 50 percent more calls last weekend than the same time last year. Initially, most came from the canton of Ticino near the Swiss border with Italy but have since spread nationwide.

The epidemic is also spurring other health concerns. Online Doctor, a Swiss-based platform focused on dermatology, is getting bombarded with questions about skin problems from frequent handwashing, says co-founder Philipp Wustrow.

Geissbühler warns against just relying on telemedicine. People who do have symptoms of coronavirus need a proper examination. Other groups such as elderly patients, pregnant women, and those with chronic diseases “must be systematically referred to a doctor for a clinical examination.”

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