If you’ve been into any retail establishment lately, you’re sure to have noticed that the Halloween candy and pumpkins have been replaced by all things Christmas. But along with the holiday cheer comes something not so joyous. The flu. Flu season starts in October and will continue in full force well into February.
Telemedicine Can Help
Telemedicine is a safe and accurate method for diagnosing and treating the flu. While there is a rapid flu test that is generally effective in children, it misses the presence of flu in adults a quarter of the time, so physicians generally rely on an assessment of the patient’s symptoms. This can easily be done using secure, high-definition video without a visit to the office.
The best way to slow down the spread of the flu virus is to contain it. If fewer people become infected, they will, in turn, infect fewer people. That’s why many physicians are asking patients with flu-like symptoms to stay home. Patients are still getting treatment via telemedicine, but not exposing other patients to the virus.
According to Health IT Outcomes, “Evidence-based clinical research supports this strategy. For example, a widely cited study published in Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology found strong evidence that well-child visits subsequently resulted in a 3.17 percent increase in influenza-like illnesses among children and their family members within two weeks of the visit. This germ swap results in more than 766,000 additional office visits for flu-like symptoms each year and nearly $492 million in annual costs.”
Telemedicine helps reduce exposure for providers and staff as well. They may have received the vaccine, but its effectiveness varies from year to year.
The logic is overwhelming if you think about it. Where is the worst place to go at the height of flu season? The doctor’s office. So why didn’t the idea of using telemedicine catch on sooner? In the past, technology barriers and provider reimbursement policies posed serious challenges. Telehealth technology used to be expensive and complex, but now it is as easy to use as any other app and most people have a suitable camera on their PC or mobile device. In addition, a host of state laws now require many providers to reimburse telemedicine visits on par with in-office ones. There is still a patchwork of regulations and payer policies and there is work to be done, but the trend toward paying providers for telehealth visits is rapidly picking up steam.
Telehealth is not the only technology that is helping with management of the flu virus. Here are a couple of others:
Social media – When people are sick they tend to say something about it. Some applications, like sickweather.com harness the billions of data points available on social media channels. Sickweather explains, “Everyday thousands of people around the globe update social media sites like Facebook and Twitter when they (or someone close to them) gets sick. Just as Doppler radar scans the skies for indicators of bad weather, Sickweather scans social networks for indicators of illness, allowing you to check for the chance of sickness as easily as you can check for the chance of rain.”
EHR systems – In the same way that Sickweather keeps track of the health of the global population, EHR systems can be used to monitor and protect the health of a practice’s patient population. It can be used to identify patients who have not yet received their flu vaccination. Based on this information, providers can develop a campaign to educate and persuade exactly the patients who need it most.
The flu is not only miserable, it is dangerous. Every year 36,000 people die and more than 200,000 are hospitalized because of the flu in the United States. The best course is prevention, of course, so efforts to ensure that everyone who can be vaccinated is are crucial. But telehealth can also play a role in reducing the impact of each outbreak.