The 2017-2018 flu season marked one of the worst epidemics in decades. And with the 2019-2020 flu system in full swing, health systems and medical practices are dealing with the onslaught of patients who will walk through the door with cough, cold, and flu symptoms in various stages of severity. Providers are faced with challenges ranging from controlling contagions and protecting fragile populations to increased workloads and supply-and-demand discrepancies.
Like every year, providers are informing patients about CDC’s flu shot recommendations and then setting up clinics where patients can get them, educating communities and schools about outbreak conditions, ordering extra supplies, and staffing up for the increased number of patient visits.
Is virtual care the answer?
However, healthcare providers that offer virtual care—especially asynchronous virtual care—to their patients are often better equipped to deal with this challenging time of year. They can encourage sick patients to seek care from the comfort of their homes, reducing the number of people who they could spread the virus to—including at-risk populations such as pregnant women, newborn babies, elderly patients, and those with weakened immune systems.
Virtual care solutions that provide automation support increase provider efficiency when treating high-demand but low-acuity conditions, like the flu. This frees up time for clinicians to meet the needs of patients with high-acuity needs or chronic conditions. Increased efficiency can also help prevent provider burnout, which is typically worse during the fall and winter months.
Viruses are democratic and can bring down patients in all demographics, but our socioeconomically disadvantaged patients can be the hardest to help. Let me share a quick patient story to illustrate. “Manuel” is a 66-year-old, Spanish-speaking, low-income man with Medicaid coverage. He wasn’t able to take time off from work to get his flu shot, and he is now having flu symptoms.
He has no home Wi-Fi, and on his pay-per-use data plan, video visits are too expensive. Taking the bus to the after-hours urgent care center is a miserable prospect when he’s experiencing fever and muscle aches. If he waits until his day off, it’ll be too late for him to be able to get Tamiflu. Fortunately, he’s able to go online using his smartphone and get care asynchronously (and in medically certified Spanish/English translation) in just minutes. And, his prescription for Tamiflu will be waiting at the pharmacy for his wife to pick up on her way home from work.
Virtual care platforms can also provide data on outbreaks by geographic areas, allowing systems to track how viruses are impacting their own communities. This allows them to staff up as viruses become widespread, boost their communications about preventative measures, and open new immunization clinics.
But there is another benefit to healthcare systems that offer telehealth, and that is when their own employees come down with a virus.
People who work in the healthcare industry are exposed daily to viruses that are easily spread this time of year, so it’s inevitable that many of them will become sick, too. Several of the same concerns systems have about ill patients—e.g., contagion, loss of work—apply to healthcare staff as well. Virtual care can help by letting these clinicians:
The Department of Labor recommends urging sick patients—or those who show early symptoms—to stay home. Obviously, this is to prevent the spread of viruses, particularly to patients who might be vulnerable for other reasons. Just because clinicians are at home, however, doesn’t mean they can’t treat patients. Virtual care allows doctors to treat patients from anywhere with their phone or computer, including in fuzzy slippers on their own couches.
Working from home also allows for more rest time, which can shorten the duration and lessen the severity of a cold or flu, getting these clinicians healthy and back to the hospital or clinic sooner.
It’s well established that stress weakens the immune system, making it more difficult to fend off viruses and to fight them off once the patient is sick. With an increase of high-demand patients vying for doctor’s time with their regular patient load, clinical and administrative staff often work double shifts. It’s no wonder cold and flu season exacerbates feelings of stress and burnout among physicians, thus, increasing the chances these clinicians will get sick themselves.
Clinicians who have the ability to treat low-acuity patients via telehealth can see efficiency increase ten times over. That’s a lot more time to spend with high-acuity patients, and maybe even some time to rest and recover before moving on to the next high-stress situation.
Walk the walk
It’s easy to think of physicians as superheroes. They heal the sick, work long hours, and solve nearly impossible problems. It can be difficult to remember that they fall prey to illness, too. But they most definitely do, and giving them a way to seek treatment for their own ailments from home provides as much comfort and convenience as it does other patients. The treatment they receive can help them speed up their recovery, so they can get back to treating other patients who are suffering due to the same virus.
Cough, cold, and flu season can be rough on everyone: patients, physicians, and healthcare systems. But providers that are armed with a smart telehealth strategy—and the right virtual care platform—can keep a difficult time of year from turning into public health crisis.
Ray Costantini, MD, MBA, is the CEO and co-founder, Bright.md.