COVID-19 testing is confusing. What you need to know now.

By Helene M. Epstein
COVID-19 graphic with question marks

The world’s been turned upside down due to COVID-19. Any virus can be a complicated creature, especially when a new one pops up. And because medical experts are learning as they go, and sharing what they learn with the rest of us, it can sometimes feel like we’re standing on shifting sands as the tide is rising.

It’s also not easy to develop tests for a new virus while scientists are still studying the basics of how it’s transmitted and what it does to our bodies. COVID-19 has been particularly difficult to nail down because it doesn’t behave like other known coronaviruses. While they differ greatly in essential ways, from a patient’s point-of-view there are similarities with HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. That was the last virus in the USA to receive the same level of concern and confusion, as it spread before we understood what it was, how it worked, how to test for it and treat it. Some of you may recall the misunderstandings, the anger, and the despair it caused. Today, AIDS is easy to diagnose and –– while it isn’t yet curable –– we are clear on prevention and treatment.

Both will happen with COVID-19, and far more quickly than they did with HIV/AIDS. In fact, it’s unprecedented how rapidly and successfully the world’s medical communities have attacked the problem.

Which leaves us with a different issue, an overwhelming number of testing choices. The list of tests and manufacturers is proliferating. There are currently over 150 COVID-19 tests made by different manufacturers with a wide range of reliability and accuracy.

So, if you’re concerned you might have COVID-19 or have been exposed to it, or you’ve been asked to get tested by your work or school, here are answers to your questions about how to get the right test and the correct diagnosis.

The Society to Improve Diagnosis in Medicine (SIDM) catalyzes and leads change to improve diagnosis and eliminate harm from diagnostic error. We work in partnership with patients, their families, the healthcare community, and every interested stakeholder. SIDM is the only organization focused solely on the problem of diagnostic error and improving the accuracy and timeliness of diagnosis. In 2015, SIDM established the Coalition to Improve Diagnosis, to increase awareness and actions that improve diagnosis. Members of the Coalition represent hundreds of thousands of healthcare providers and patients—and the leading health organizations and government agencies involved in patient care. Together, we work to find solutions that enhance diagnostic safety and quality, reduce harm, and ultimately, ensure better health outcomes for patients. Visit our website at, and follow us on Twitter or Facebook.

Helene M. Epstein writes about patient safety and family health. Her goal is to help readers apply important new information to their own lives. Subscribe to her website at and follow her on TwitterFacebook, and YouTube.

Dx IQ is made possible with funding from the Mont Fund and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

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Resources for Patients

At SIDM, we are focused on raising awareness about the magnitude and impact of diagnostic errors as providing tools and resources to equip patients to participate in achieving an accurate and timely diagnosis.