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. Unlike our ancestors in 1918-1919, we have the advantage of flu vaccines and antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections. But some things have stayed the same. The pandemic controls of a century ago consisted of disinfectants, quarantine and hygiene recommendations. Today we promote similar tips like handwashing and working from home when sick. 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 there is one modern clinical solution that’s proving an effective weapon against the flu: telemedicine.
21st Century Treatment for Ancient Illnesses
Virtual health 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 telemedicine to help with:
1. 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.
2. Contagion limitation. Flu season is driven by contact and contamination. In addition to students 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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 during flu seasons when many clinicians deal 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 coming straight at us. Within months, many of us will be sick. Like every other year, providers, schools and workplaces will share CDC vaccine recommendations and prevention tips and arrange onsite mobile clinics.
But it’s not 1918 anymore. We now have versatile technologies that can enable clinically advanced care while minimizing risk and contagion. Telemedicine offers a quantum leap over standard flu prevention and treatment models – and gives responsible clinicians the power to change the outcome of this flu season.