100 years ago, a third of the world’s population became sick. One of the most disastrous pandemics in human history, the outbreak spread rapidly from nation to nation, infecting people even on remote islands. Today some experts believe it killed more people than both World Wars combined.
The name of this terrible virus? The flu. Or more specifically, the H1N1 virus, also called the Spanish flu. The H1N1 virus is still with us today, seen most recently in the swine flu pandemic of 2009 – estimated to have killed 284,500 people across the world. And the flu remains a recurring and potentially deadly illness, as we saw in the 2017-2018 flu season, which led to just shy of a million hospitalizations. But this year there’s a new viral villain in town, and COVID-19 is making flu prevention and treatment especially urgent. Healthcare leaders hope that social distancing, remote learning, and working from home will reduce flu contagion. But with many hospitals already at capacity with COVID-19 patients, we still face a deadly crisis when it comes to flu patients requiring care.
That’s why many providers are turning to a modern clinical solution that’s an effective weapon against the flu: telemedicine.
Treating an Old Illness with Modern Technology
Telehealth is perfectly designed for the core methodology of flu prevention: curbing the spread of the virus by limiting personal contact. Patients can receive care from home while doctors prescribe medication remotely. Is this method of care delivery for everyone? No. Some patients should seek in-person care if they’re pregnant, 65 or older, severely ill, or in another high-risk category.
But many other patients can be diagnosed remotely – which is why so many providers are adopting telehealth to help with:
- Faster Treatment
Patients feeling sick should ideally be treated within two days, as antiviral drugs work best within 48 hours of the first symptoms. But getting an office appointment on short notice isn’t always realistic, especially in areas with provider shortages. Winter road conditions, hectic work schedules, financial challenges, and other factors can also make it hard for patients to get to a doctor’s office. Even those who can visit the local urgent care center may dread spending two hours in its waiting room. Virtual appointments are often faster – which can mean access to antiviral drugs when they’re most effective.
- Rural Care
Speaking of the Spanish flu pandemic, people are often surprised to hear that people were still dying in 1920 after the pandemic was assumed to be over. Those small aftershocks happened mostly in rural areas and it’s likely the same factors will play out this flu season. Some of the biggest COVID-19 hotspots in the U.S. are in small towns and rural areas and their limited healthcare resources are already stretched to capacity. Rural flu patients who want to visit an urgent care center or clinic in person may find there just aren’t any staff available to treat them – making telehealth a necessity.
- Contagion Limitation
Flu season is driven by contact and contamination. In addition to students, family members and coworkers infecting each other, flu patients can infect other patients waiting to be seen for a sprained wrist or hypertension. A study published in Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology found a rise in flu-like illnesses in children and their families within two weeks of an annual wellness visit to the pediatrician. This increase was linked to more than 780,000 additional appointments per year and more than $500 million in healthcare costs. Virtual appointments can minimize this kind of contagion and help protect medically fragile patients.
- Capacity Management
While flu season often means high patient volumes, the flu itself is a low-acuity condition. Yet many practices struggle to see patients with more serious illnesses in a timely manner because their calendar fills up with people experiencing a cough or low fever. Telemedicine can free up staff to treat flu patients virtually while keeping their exam rooms open for patients with high-acuity needs and chronic conditions.
- Targeted Care
Tracking flu outbreaks has become a high-tech science. Portable telehealth solutions can help clinicians offer vaccinations and treatment in the regions where they’re needed most. If certain populations are especially vulnerable or an area is experiencing a provider shortage or a rapid outbreak, mobile clinics can take virtual care solutions to assisted living centers, elementary schools, disadvantaged neighborhoods, and other locales.
- Provider Well-being
Just as telemedicine can help patients receive care at home, it can also allow providers to work from home – something immensely useful for clinicians dealing with burnout, long days, and stress-weakened immune systems. Fatigued or symptomatic providers can treat patients from their home office, getting more rest and speeding up recovery from their own cold or flu.
Stopping Contagion, Protecting Communities
Flu season is already underway. The months ahead are predicted to be some of the bleakest since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Providers are begging everyone to get vaccinations and follow prevention practices whenever possible. But it’s not 1918 anymore. We’re not helpless in the face of influenza. Today’s telehealth technologies can enable clinically advanced care while minimizing risk and contagion. Virtual care offers a quantum leap over standard flu prevention and treatment models – and gives responsible clinicians the power to change flu season outcomes when it’s needed more than ever.