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Winter is Coming: Prepare for Cold and Flu with Virtual Care

For most people, the end of summer is characterized by back to school ads, discounted swimwear and the promise of crisp autumn air. In healthcare, it’s more than stacks of new notebooks – it’s time to plan for managing cold and flu season.

Cold and flu season can strike anywhereEach year, health systems and providers brace themselves for an onslaught of stuffy noses, hacking coughs and spiking fevers. And this year, as staffing plans are made and vaccine doses ordered, the question on everyone’s minds will be, “What do we do if we see a repeat of last year?”

If you work in healthcare (and unless you were, say, living off the grid in the Alaskan tundra last winter) a repeat of the 2017-2018 flu season likely strikes fear—or at least concern—into your heart. While not as terrifying as the white walkers in Game of Thrones, the onset of cold and flu season requires similar preparation to withstand a viral invasion. So, how can health systems deal with the visit volumes, the potential for infection to spread in waiting rooms, and overwhelmed clinic staff?

Virtual Care Can Help

Having a virtual care service in place can help mitigate some of the challenges that are part and parcel with cold and flu season. It’s not the only answer, certainly, but virtual care adds real value where it counts.

Support Vaccination

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” as the saying goes. It’s no secret that the best way to reduce influenza cases is vaccination, and health systems often have well-developed strategies for promoting annual influenza vaccination. A virtual care service can add value by creating an additional channel for patient communication.

Providers can remind patients to get their flu shots during video visits. Health systems can include a note about getting vaccinated in patient education materials. And, Zipnosis customers can use their virtual care platform to incorporate flu shot reminders into their virtual visit (a feature successfully deployed during last summer’s measles outbreak in Minnesota).

Manage Provider Time

Here’s where virtual care really shines. A store-and-forward / asynchronous virtual care model enables providers to diagnose and treat patients in a fraction of the time as an in-person visit, as noted by our VP of Customer Success, Catherine Murphy, a couple weeks ago.

In a look at data from six customers over the course of last flu season (October 1, 2017 to March 31, 2018), the average provider work time per asynchronous virtual visit was just shy of 2 minutes and maintained high quality standards. During that time, these six customers completed close to 12,000 visits, amounting to less than 340 provider hours. For comparison, 12,000 in-person visits at 15 minutes each would total about 3,000 hours. On average, virtual care saved each of these health systems 440 hours of provider time. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

Mitigate Waiting Room Infection

One of the biggest challenges about cold and flu is that they are just so darn infectious. A study in Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology found greater than 3% increase in influenza-like illnesses in children and family members within 2 weeks of annual wellness visits.

Hospitals, health systems and clinics have a variety of tactics to help stem waiting room infection – from handing out face masks to regular sterilization procedures. Virtual care can be added to the list. By offering a remote option for treating highly infectious conditions like influenza, patients don’t have to come into their doctor’s office for treatment. Plus, patients with common conditions like urinary tract infections or pinkeye can also get treated at home, lessening the chance they contract an influenza-like illness at the doctor’s office or urgent care.

Take the 2018 On-Demand Virtual Care Benchmark Survey

Now’s the Time

This isn’t Game of Thrones, and we aren’t facing an influx ofwhite walkers, but winter is coming. Getting a virtual care service launched now will go a long way to help health systems manage the impact of cold and flu season on their providers and patients. Starting now will mean your virtual care service is up and running when it counts. Pair that with some smart marketing tactics, and you’ve got winning combination to combat the coming cold and flu season. 

 

Virtual Care Helps Ease Bottlenecks And Spread Of Disease During Flu Season

Telemedicine is not just for diagnosis and chronic care, but also population health management.

As healthcare costs spike and greater emphasis is placed on reducing costs, improving outcomes, and creating greater efficiency, telemedicine is stepping into the spotlight as a way to diagnose simple conditions, track and provide chronic care, provide behavioral and mental health treatment, and even help with population health management.

But telemedicine also has the power to help contain epidemics by diagnosing and treating flu and other contagious diseases via virtual visits, therefore reducing the contact infected individuals have with others.

It’s Not Too Late for Health Systems: Get Ahead of Cold & Flu with Virtual Care

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).

Cold and flu visits peak during the winter months

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.

Cold and flu searches peak during the winter

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).

Using Telehealth, mHealth to Fight the Flu

Leading health systems across the country are recognizing the value of using virtual care to curb the spread of influenza. By enabling providers to diagnose and treat patients online, virtual care can help keep contagious patients at home rather than forcing them to visit a busy doctor’s office.

Dr. Dan Tran of Fairview Health Services notes that, “Virtual care is a great ‘relief valve’ to ensure all who need care receive it promptly, especially during cold and flu season.”

Read more on how Zipnosis is leading the way in leveraging virtual care to mitigate the impacts of cold and flu season on health systems, and check out the full article on mHealthintelligence.com.