Aaachoooo! If that sneeze is accompanied by a cough and fever, you may have the flu, but don’t go running just yet to the doctor’s office or to the hospital emergency room where you can spread those germs while you wait…and wait…and wait, warns Irene Tien, MD, board-certified physician in emergency medicine and pediatric emergency medicine.
That’s because medical assistance is likely just a few computer clicks or a smartphone-app tap away, says Dr. Tien, a member of The ROWE (Reliable Online Wellness Experience) Network, a nationwide group of physicians who are part of a rapidly growing trend in telehealth or “virtual care.”
Telehealth utilizes the latest communications technology and digital-informational devices, such as mobile phones, iPads and computers, to help patients gain immediate access to health providers and services whenever they need them. Patients can interact with a nurse or physician through wireless, audiovisual devices for quick diagnosis of a variety of illnesses.
“People with flulike symptoms should stay home to prevent continued spread of the disease. Even a person breathing the same air as someone suffering from flu can become infected,” Dr. Tien says. “Patients can receive all the professional consultation and care they need to manage their illness simply by interacting with a physician via smartphone or computer. Telehealth services are fast, convenient and help patients avoid long hours in a waiting room.
“Most physicians, in fact, would prefer that patients with influenza or severe colds not physically come to their offices and potentially infect other patients there,” she adds.
Her advice is especially critical now that most states are reporting influenza emergencies, with some schools forced to close temporarily and hospitals setting up makeshift emergency facilities to accommodate the surge of patients sick with flu and other respiratory illnesses.
As of mid-January 2018, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the flu had reached pandemic levels in some areas, with nearly 12,000 confirmed influenza-related hospitalizations since Oct. 1, 2017, a date considered the start of the current flu season, and a corresponding rise in the proportion of deaths attributed to pneumonia and influenza. The flu mortality count included 37 pediatric deaths as of Jan. 29.
Recently, media reports in the Fresno, California area indicated a growing number of patients were avoiding “long jams at the ER” by taking advantage of telehealth services through their apps or patient portals – news that Dr. Tien says she does not find surprising.
“During last season’s flu outbreak, some health systems and physician practices were pitching ‘virtual care’ via telehealth platforms as a way for patients to get medical help promptly without leaving their homes and spreading contagions,” she says.
Just this year (2018), the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology issued a position paper endorsing telehealth services. As reported by mhealthintelligence.com, the trade group of specialists supported “virtual care” as a health delivery platform that can “enhance patient-physician collaborations and adherence, reduce overall medical cost, improve health outcomes, and increase access to care.”
Meanwhile, the technology underlying telehealth care is becoming increasingly sophisticated. For example, ResApp, a company focused on developing “digital health care solutions,” is preparing to conduct a second U.S. trial of an app, ResAppDx, that uses a smartphone’s microphone to analyze a patient’s breathing and determine whether the patient is suffering from one of several respiratory disorders, including asthma and pneumonia.
Dr. Tien says patients are likely to have the flu virus if their temperature spikes to 101 degrees Fahrenheit or greater, and they experience chills, body aches, nausea, upset stomach and night sweats. Her advice to those who get the flu:
- Stay home, unless you are having shortness of breath, faint, or are unable to keep fluids down.
- Wear a mask and disinfect hard surfaces to prevent infecting others in the household
- Contact a physician as soon as possible if you are at high risk for having complications from the flu (pregnancy, age under 5 or over 65 years, immune suppressant medications, chronic diseases) about medications that might reduce the severity of the illness or if you need advice on how to treat the symptoms.
She also offers these tips to avoid becoming a flu victim:
- Wash hands frequently
- Stop touching your face
- Clean hard surfaces in your office or at home with solutions that contain alcohol, bleach or peroxide; viruses that cause flu and other illnesses can remain alive on hard surfaces for 24 hours.
- Keep clean toys and other shared items in the home.
“Most importantly, if you haven’t already done so, get a flu shot; it’s not too late,” Dr. Tien says.
Irene Tien, M.D., is board-certified in emergency medicine and pediatric emergency medicine. She is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Emergency Physicians and is author or co-author of several research publications.
The ROWE Network is a physician-owned organization that provides high-quality health services online, including telehealth patient monitoring and care management via video consultations. The network currently provides support in 5 Countries and 30 States. www.rowedocs.com