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Using Telehealth, mHealth to Fight the Flu

Virtual visits, mHealth tools and other telehealth platforms have become powerful weapons in the battle to contain the flu and other fast-moving and dangerous viruses.

By Eric Wicklund

- Healthcare providers may have a new cure for the flu this winter: The virtual visit.

mHealth tools and platforms have for years been used to identify outbreaks of the flu and other highly infectious viruses and direct doctors and drugs to where they’re most needed. But now some health systems and telehealth vendors are pitching the platform as a way of enabling doctors to treat patients without coming into direct contact with them – or forcing a contagious patient to visit a busy doctor’s office, clinic or hospital ER.

"Virtual care is a great 'relief valve' to ensure all who need care receive it promptly, especially during cold and flu season," Dang Tran, MD, physician executive at Minneapolis-based Fairview Heath Services, says in a release issued by Zipnosis. "In addition, by offering virtual care, we are providing patients with greater choice and convenience.  Virtual care also has the additional benefit of keeping ill patients out of our waiting rooms and clinics, where they cannot infect some of our most medically fragile patients."

During an interview at the American Telemedicine Association annual meeting earlier this year in Minneapolis, Tran pointed out that clinicians can diagnose many common ailments – including the flu – during a virtual visit, enabling a patient to stay at home and speeding up the treatment and recovery process.

“It’s an ideal (tool) for someone who needs to see a doctor quickly and conveniently,” he said.

READ MORE: Digital Health Tools Help Patients, Doctors Plan for End-of-Life Care

Telehealth vendors like Zipnosis, Teladoc, American Well, MDLive and Doctor on Demand tout the online platform for its convenience to consumers, but it’s also an important tool in protecting fragile populations, such as patients with compromised immune systems, those with multiple chronic conditions, the elderly and children.

In a study published in 2014 in Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology, researchers at the University of Iowa found a more than 3 percent increase in flu-like illnesses in children and their family members within two weeks of an annual wellness visit to the pediatrician’s office. This, in turn, led to more than 780,000 additional healthcare visits per year and a price tag of more than $500 million.

Some healthcare providers and entrepreneurs – including Pager, Heal and FRND - are even getting back into the house call business, dispatching doctors or nurses to the patient’s home to handle check-ups and treat consumers who don’t have the time or energy to visit a clinic.

But for those on the front lines, at clinics, doctor’s offices and ERs, mHealth and telehealth offer a very real opportunity to keep sick people away from healthy people and curb the spread of the virus.

In Tacoma, Wash., CHI Franciscan Health recently unveiled a kiosk in one of its urgent care centers, in a bid to ease crowded conditions and speed up the time it takes for a patient to see a doctor. During a presentation at the ATA conference, program manager Lana Adzhigirey, RN, MN, CPHQ, said officials decided to test the kiosks after noticing two-hour wait times during last year’s flu season.

READ MORE: Leveraging Primary Care Telehealth for Convenience and Quality

“This wasn’t something we had planned on,” she said, adding the idea was to create a quiet space where patients to sit down, have a virtual visit with a clinician, and perhaps have an issue resolved rather than wait in a crowded waiting room or clinic. “We have to find flexible ways to offer the same excellent care despite the ebb and flow of demand. … It’s our responsibility to provide the better match of supply and demand.”

Kevin Smith, DNP, FNP, FAANP, Zipnosis’ chief clinical officer, says telehealth helps health systems handle that crush of new patients. It also enables the provider to reach out to the public, providing an alternative to leaving the comforts of a warm house and bed.  

"When you're suffering from cold or flu symptoms, virtual healthcare delivered by providers from your community's own health system allows you to receive the same accurate diagnosis and high-quality care you would in person, but more cost effectively and in the comfort of your own home," Smith said. "In addition, if you're contagious, you're doing your part: You won't spread your germs to the high school player who's at the urgent care center getting treated for a sprained ankle or to the parent at your family practice clinic whose child has a preventive care appointment."

Healthcare providers have also used mHealth platforms, such as patient portals, to dispense information about vaccinations and other health and wellness measures to large populations, such as the elderly. And they’re using data gathered from EMR platforms and social media sites to chart outbreaks as they occur and head them off before they become worse.

Another weapon in the doctor’s arsenal is the smartphone. One company based in Australia, ResApp, has developed an app that can measure a user’s cough and identify whether it’s caused by pneumonia or other respiratory issues. The app is now or will soon be undergoing clinical trials at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Cleveland Clinic.

READ MORE: Telemedicine Gives Long-Term Care Facilities an Instant Link to Healthcare

“Respiratory issues are the single largest (healthcare condition) for which you need in-person medical care,” Brian Leedman, the company’s co-founder and executive director, said during an interview earlier this year. “Right now you need to be in front of a doctor to be diagnosed. This would change that.”

Dig Deeper:

Virtual Care Within the EHR May Be a ‘Game-Changer’

Potential for Healthcare Kiosks in Improving Care Delivery

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