MedCity Influencers, Health Tech

Is the digital health industry prepared for an unprecedented flu season?

It’s important to leverage patient engagement tools to get in front of patients early in the season, reminding them to get their flu shot and educating them on the potential symptoms of both the seasonal flu and Covid-19

During last year’s flu season, only 45% of people in the United States received the flu vaccine. Less than half of the country — despite an estimate by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that during the 2018–2019 influenza season, more than 35.5 million individuals were infected and more than 16.5 million medical visits, 490,600 hospitalizations, and 34,200 deaths occurred.

That’s a concerning prospect, but we’re facing an even more concerning one this year.

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The percentage of people receiving the flu vaccine needs to rise for 2020. Here’s why: flu vaccination is the most effective way to prevent against getting the flu. It is imperative to increase the number of individuals receiving the flu vaccine to reduce the risk of acquiring preventable seasonal illnesses amidst the very real threat of co-infection with Covid-19.

If we have high rates of individuals infected with influenza on top of a potential second wave of Covid-19, health systems may be inundated, creating a need to delay or postpone elective procedures and surgeries once again. That’s why it’s so important to arm our frontline healthcare workers with the tools they need to be prepared to manage the spread of infection.

With last year’s numbers top of mind, along with the added stress of limited healthcare resources due to the ongoing pandemic, it can seem like too much to handle. There’s a glimmer of hope, however; digital technology has proven to play a valuable role in the healthcare system pandemic mitigation strategy.

Here are three ways digital health tools can support providers and their patients during flu season.

  1. Spread Awareness, Not Infections

As with many other public health issues, the best way to prepare for the upcoming flu season is to make sure that patients are aware of the risks and understand how vaccinations can help protect themselves and their loved ones.

Flu seasons are unpredictable and generally begin as early as October. The CDC recommends that all healthcare providers screen caregivers, high-risk individuals, pregnant women, the elderly, and people over the age of six months for flu vaccination.

To accomplish this, providers are incorporating cutting-edge digital technology aimed at reducing prevalence and transmission rates within their communities. With the help of remote patient monitoring (RPM) and self-management tools, clinical teams can remotely monitor patients with flu-like symptoms at home, which avoids additional contact with potentially ill patients in waiting rooms.

In addition, the same providers can send credible information and provide personalized care via smartphone to help patients better understand how to self-manage and self-monitor their specific symptoms.

Further, by closely monitoring patients’ symptoms, technologies like these can analyze patient data and send automated digital notifications to care teams, signaling if a patient’s clinical status has escalated to a point requiring direct intervention, especially if there’s a possibility that the patient is Covid-19 positive.

  1. Leverage Patient Engagement Tools to Reduce Risk

There’s a lot of misinformation and confusion to go around: when patients get sick during the winter months, it can be difficult for them to determine if they have the common cold, pneumonia, or the seasonal flu. This year, there is the added complication and uncertainty of Covid-19 co-infection. Tacking on the added uncertainty of Covid-19 having similar symptoms to the traditional flu, as an industry, we can anticipate patients’ anxiety to be at an all-time high this year. Many patients also believe some of the common misconceptions that are floating around, including that getting the flu vaccination actually gives them the flu or that they don’t need to get vaccinated every year.

While these statements are factually incorrect, it’s important for providers to lean on educational resources from trusted public health organizations to share the most up-to-date information regarding prevention, symptoms, and treatment. The CDC releases flu prevention and vaccination content that aims to debunk common myths and inform patients of the importance of vaccinations through easy-to-understand videos, guidelines, and suggestions from top medical professionals in the country.

It’s up to providers to leverage available digital health tools to share these important facts in a clear and effective way. For example, systems that allow hospitals to scale communication efforts by using systemwide video- or text-based broadcasts to help counter misinformation can be valuable, since they help ensure that clinicians can effectively relay correct and up-to-date information to patients.

Additionally, omnichannel solutions enable clinicians to consult with other medical professionals to discuss treatment options, while also communicating with patients via in-room video-conferencing capabilities, regardless of their locations.

  1. Identify and Inform At-Risk Populations

Educating patients on the differences between the flu, Covid-19, and other illnesses that are prevalent in the winter is important, but identifying populations who are at a higher risk for developing serious flu complications adds another layer of complexity.

While all individuals are at risk of being infected with the flu, similar to Covid-19, certain groups are at greater risk for serious complications from the flu, including older patients, young children, pregnant women, those with chronic lung disease, diabetes, heart disease, neurologic conditions, and certain other long-term health conditions. While most individuals who fall within these categories may know that they’re more susceptible to these illnesses, others may not.

As soon as that risk is identified, innovative digital health solutions automatically and accurately communicate this information, ensuring everyone takes the proper precautions. This might even take place outside of the healthcare setting, allowing the care team to prepare properly for a patient’s arrival.

For example, if the patient is identified as at-risk and is experiencing symptoms, an alert from technology can allow a nurse and the rest of the care team to pause and properly adjust the treatment plan. Increasing awareness at the point of care prevents the infection from spreading among patients, staff, and visitors.

Digital health solutions can also help hospitals eliminate opportunities for error or failure points. Leaning on technology as an added security measure by asking patients and caregivers the right questions at the right time can ensure that they understand their personal level of risk, ultimately reducing the spread of a virus.

In addition, technology can help manage populations at scale, a critical consideration during flu season. Flu can impact many within the community; today’s health technology allows care teams to engage with patients digitally, and provides alerting around which individuals are at risk or have active symptoms. This enables care teams to look beyond just the affected patients in hospitals, managing larger populations at scale without exhausting critical healthcare resources.

So, what’s next?

In order to be in the best position to combat the threat of multiple viruses this winter, it’s important to reflect on the digital tools providers and health systems have at their fingertips. These can help lessen the burden on care teams by streamlining some of their more rote tasks, while they continue to educate patients and provide the best level of care.

It’s important to leverage patient engagement tools to get in front of patients early in the season, reminding them to get their flu shot and educating them on the potential symptoms of both the seasonal flu and Covid-19, so that patients are armed with the resources they need to take the lead on their own healthcare journeys.

Stressful times lie ahead for the healthcare space and it will take continued vigilance, communication and education to keep our collective population as healthy as we can this flu season. Luckily, providers and health systems don’t have to go it alone — technology can assist every step of the way.

Photo: dragana991, Getty Images


LouAnn Bala, MSN, RN, is vice president of content strategy and clinical solutions at GetWellNetwork. She joined GetWellNetwork in 2015 after serving as an assistant chief nursing officer at Ellis Medicine in Schenectady NY.

As an experienced transformational nursing leader and trusted consultant, LouAnn has over two decades of progressive leadership, operational and clinical expertise in a variety of care settings. Her passion, to improve the healthcare experience while reducing costs and health disparities is a central focus of her work at GetWellNetwork.