According to the Centers for Disease Control Surveillance, this flu season has been among the worst of this decade. Fortunately, instead of clogging doctors’ offices, some patients have checked their symptoms with physicians via flu telemedicine. In recent months, multiple consumer-facing telehealth providers have reported significant increases in flu-related cases, leading to intriguing implications for the future of infectious disease management.
The influx in patients is likely caused by a combination of an increasing awareness of telemedicine and of hospitals encouraging people to use telemedicine instead of visiting the Emergency Room. Last month, American Well noted an increase of 300 percent for flu-related calls, and Teladoc reports that a doubled case load of flu-related concerns has brought their total to roughly 20 percent of their visits. The CDC estimates that about 6 percent of traditional office visits are centered around the flu or flu-like illnesses. Even Buoy Health’s machine learning-powered chatbot has seen a significant uptick in flu symptom-related inquiries.
Although the internet contains plenty of medical information, the average person is hardly equipped to sort through the data on WebMD or other sites where answers are not customized for the patient’s situation. As a result, patients often seek personalized answers from other sources, such as primary care providers and ER doctors. The problem, especially during flu season, is that the filled waiting rooms clog the offices and can actually facilitate the spread of infectious illness.
Now, with telemedicine on the scene, patients can remain in the comfort of their homes while consulting a qualified resource for individualized advice. Healthcare professionals can triage patients before they arrive at the ER and, in some cases, help them avoid unnecessary trips to the ER or doctor’s office. If a patient needs to come in, then preparations for his/her treatment will begin even before the patient arrives. In addition, since antivirals can often be prescribed for the flu based on symptoms alone, patients using telemedicine can receive treatment more quickly, at less expense, and with less risk to others as compared to visiting the clinic. Video medicine calls also relieve the doctors’ workloads; during flu season, there may be a temporary physician shortage, particularly in the ERs.
The flu may be one of the most visible types of infectious disease, but the lessons learned from flu telemedicine can likely be applied to other infectious illnesses as well. When patients who believe they are sick turn to telemedicine instead of urgent care centers, public health programs, and hospitals, these traditional sources of healthcare become less stressed for the staff and safer for patients who cannot avoid a visit.
Of course, this scenario assumes that a reliable, high quality telemedicine platform is readily available for consumers and healthcare providers to use. Dr. Andrew Le, CEO and cofounder of Buoy Health, believes that software-based solutions are less likely to suffer from issues caused by long-term user strain due to their innate flexibility. Here at swyMed, we agree.
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