UnitedHealth Group (UNH -1.98%) on Wednesday announced results of a 500-patient study that it hopes will lead the Food and Drug Administration to soften its generally negative stance on self-administered testing. The study found tests conducted using patient-collected samples accurately detected COVID-19 in more than 90% of positive patients, which is just as good as swabs taken by healthcare professionals.

Reducing strain on the system 

Currently, testing for COVID-19 requires a trained clinician to collect a sample from deep in the nasal cavity, which means they need to dip into a dwindling supply of personal protective equipment with each patient.

Doctor swabbing a sample.

Image source: Getty Images.

The method UnitedHealth Group tested works with samples collected from the middle of the nose that patients can collect on their own, at home.

Looking ahead

Simple patient-administered testing would go a long way to help public health officials decide which areas need to remain locked down and which can relax restrictions. But inaccurate (or fraudulent) tests could flood overtaxed hospitals with healthy people who shouldn't be there or prevent sick patients from seeking the help they need.

It's difficult to guess how the FDA will react to UnitedHealth's clinical trial results. A few years ago, the agency discussed the potential of at-home and over-the-counter testing for HIV, strep throat, and the flu. At the time, the agency concluded that it was still better to have professionals collect specimens, but that was before the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to overwhelm the nation's hospitals and deplete their supplies of protective gear.  As of March 20, however, the FDA was still officially holding the line against self-administered coronavirus tests.