Cold and flu season is just around the corner and as health systems across the country prepare to meet the challenge of full waiting rooms and sniffly noses, there’s one solution that can help: virtual care. Having a virtual care service in place during cold and flu season can help mitigate the sick visit surge and strain that many health systems face as fall turns to winter.
Cold and Flu Season Puts Health Systems Under Pressure
Upper respiratory illnesses, in particular influenza-like illness (ILI), account for a major portion of annual visit volume in settings such as retail clinics, urgent cares and emergency rooms. Throughout the US, cold and flu visits account for 27.4% of all retail clinic visits, 9.7% of all primary care visits and 5% of all emergency department visits each year, according to research published on healthaffairs.org.
According to a study published in Academic Emergency Medicine, the greatest number of urgent care visits occur during the winter, with the highest number of daily visits recorded from November through February. At Zipnosis we see this each year, with visit volume increasing during the fall and winter months (see Figure 1). Information from Google Trends, which aggregates web search data, follows a similar curve with more searches on cold and flu occurring during the winter (see Figure 2).
Figure 1: Zipnosis visit volume for cold and flu follows the general trajectory for urgent care and primary care clinics. 12-month visit data from the Zipnosis platform.
Figure 2: 12-month data on Google Trends “cold and flu” searches
How Can Virtual Care Help?
Implementing a virtual care solution can help health systems mitigate some of the challenges that come with cold and flu season.
Take the strain off of brick and mortar care locations
Regardless of how visit volume from cold and flu is distributed across your health system—urgent care, retail clinic, primary care or emergency department—it’s likely that locations are operating at or beyond maximum capacity during cold and flu season. Moving visits to a virtual care service takes some of the strain off your clinicians and support staff, and can free up visit slots for higher value, more complex conditions.
Virtual care has the potential to significantly reduce the burden of clinics during cold and flu season (Tweet this). For example, a large midwestern health system with a well-established virtual care service through Zipnosis saw nearly 6% of cold and flu visits shifted from in-person to virtual care, opening up appointment slots for more complex patient needs and relieving pressure on providers and staff.*
Keep your waiting rooms safe
Keeping patients healthy is important, and one element of this is minimizing exposure to illness. In a recent study, researchers from the University of Iowa noted that well-child visits for children younger than six years old increased the probability of a flu-like illness in these children or their families during the subsequent two weeks by 3.2 percentage points. This seemingly incremental risk translates to more than 700,000 preventable illnesses annually with a price tag of nearly $500 million. By moving office visits for highly contagious conditions like influenza to a virtual visit, risk of healthy patients becoming sick decreases (Tweet this).
Support patient retention and continuity of care
During the high volume times associated with cold and flu season—particularly when health systems are at capacity—it’s increasingly likely patients will seek care elsewhere. Whether they choose a retail clinic, competing urgent care or direct-to-consumer telemedicine service, visits outside your health system open the door to potential patient leakage. Moreover, seeking episodic care means that if patients return to their primary care provider, their record may not be reflective of the care they received elsewhere. Offering your own virtual care service can help capture these patients who might otherwise seek care elsewhere, while supporting continuity of care and maintaining accurate patient records.
There’s Still Time to Act
Many health systems are already beginning to see patients for cold and flu visits, but with peak influenza activity predicted for mid February to mid March 2017 according to the Epidemic Prediction Initiative, there is still time to launch and market a virtual care service. With Zipnosis’ 60-day guaranteed implementation, you can have your virtual care service up and running to handle cold and flu season – and help provide safer care for your patients.
*Assuming 9.7% of visits are for cold and flu (per the healthaffairs.org study referenced).