November 12, 2019in Virtual Care

Virtual Care: On the Front Lines of Flu Season

Human resources and small business leaders across the U.S. are bracing for flu season, and for good reason: During the recent 2017-2018 season, employers saw $21 billion in lost productivity as flu sickened close to 25 million workers. And, according to a recent study, 90% of employees come to work with cold or flu symptoms some or all of the time. Urging your teams to get their annual flu shot is a very sound first step. There are also several actions HR and business leaders can take to help minimize the spread and severity of the flu in their organizations and communities.

As HealthTap’s Chief Medical Officer, I have an early window into the severity of the season. At any given time,HealthTap has a baseline of roughly 10% of virtual consult requests for symptoms that commonly occur with the flu. During peak flu season, this rises to more than 25% of all consults, with many people reaching out for virtual care for the first time. And while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides the most comprehensive view of flu activity, at HealthTap we track incidences in real time—without requiring reporting from physicians’ offices and clinical reporting from around the country.

While HealthTap doctors haven’t seen a marked rise in diagnosed cases yet, we anticipate an increase following Thanksgiving—a time when people are more apt to be exposed due to travel and family gatherings. It’s also too soon to judge the harshness of the 2019-20 flu season, but early signs—including deaths in Nevada, California, Indiana and North Carolina—indicate that it could be especially bad for those of us in North America. Reports from the Southern Hemisphere raise concerns. The Australian flu season, which generally offers a reliable prediction for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, was particularly severe. It also struck early. We will be reporting advance indications of the spread and severity of this year’s flu season on HealthTap Edit, our company news bureau.

Now is the time: Help employees prepare for flu season

As flu season approaches, HR and business leaders can enrich their employee communications with information about what to do when flu symptoms strike—including how, when and where to seek help.

As a physician, I of course urge everyone to get a flu shot. I also suggest these messages go out to employees:

  • Antiviral medications can make a difference: Antiviral medications such as Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and Relenza (zanamivir) can ease symptoms and the duration of flu—but if indicated, must be started within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. Everyone should have a plan in place to quickly consult a doctor. In the midst of the flu season, office appointments can be even more difficult to secure. (Bear in mind that it takes an average of 24 days to schedule a first-time in-person appointment with a physician in a typical town or city in the U.S.)
  • Virtual care is the timeliest care: If your organization offers virtual healthcare, a virtual consult is almost always the timeliest way to get a prescription for antiviral medication if it is needed.
  • Protect co-workers and community: Encourage team members to remain at home when flu symptoms strike. Nobody wants to come to work when they’re sick and nobody wants to get the flu from a co-worker.
  • Activate virtual care accounts now: If your organization offers virtual care as a benefit, flu season is a prudent time to remind teams of the resources available 24-hours a day via phone, text or video call, from wherever they are in the world. Encourage employees to activate their accounts before illness strikes so it is quicker and easier for them to get evaluated and treated when they need it.

Antiviral medications: Get help while avoiding the doctor’s office

When flu symptoms are present, if there are any indications the illness may be more severe, doctors often prescribe antivirals without waiting for confirmation from flu testing (by the time the results come back, it is usually too late to begin treatment). Employees with access to virtual care can speak with a doctor from the comfort of home, without having to wait to get an appointment. During a virtual care visit, their doctor can assess symptoms, determine if antivirals are medically needed, and provide a prescription. Doctors may also refer patients to seek additional medical treatment and tests.

Immunization remains the first line of defense

Do your employees know that flu season can last more than five months or that different age groups require different vaccines? HR and business leaders can support employees by encouraging vaccination and sharing these salient points:

  • Flu season is longer than expected: Peak infections strike between December and February, but flu season can last through May. It’s not too late to get a flu shot, even in springtime.
  • The flu shot works: Recent studies by the CDC and other researchers suggest that flu vaccination reduces the risk of the flu by 40% to 60% among the general population. Early indications are that this year’s vaccine should be highly effective, but it’s more effective if given before the onset of the flu season.
  • People ages six months and over should get the shot: With rare exceptions, most people can safely get the flu shot. There are different recommendations for children, pregnant women and anyone over the age of 65; during a virtual consult, your doctor can explain what’s best for everyone.

Flu affects everyone

The flu and its far-reaching impact should never be underestimated. During the severe 2017–2018 flu season, the CDC estimated that 48.8 million people in the U.S. got sick with the flu—and that approximately 22.7 million people went to a healthcare provider due to flu-like symptoms. Close to a million people were hospitalized. Sadly, much of this was preventable: Vaccination coverage among adults was only 37.1%.

Flu also takes an economic toll on the nation:every year, the flu costs the U.S. $10.4 billion in hospitalizations and outpatient visits. The 2017-2018 season struck all ages equally hard. Many adults who assumed they could “fight off” the flu succumbed to the virus. The CDC estimated that among working age adults (aged 18-64 years), there were 30 million cases and more than 10 thousand deaths, a statistic that may surprise those who believe the flu only strikes the very young and very old.

Going beyond prevention: Business leaders make an impact

In addition to messages emphasizing prevention, HR and business leaders can prepare their organizations by sharing best practices for when flu strikes, including a how-to on accessing virtual care, pharmacy delivery services and local community resources. They can also take a proactive step in reviewing sick leave policies.

During flu season, HR and business leaders play a critical role in safeguarding the health of their employees and communities. By continuing to educate employees about the flu, they are making a meaningful difference.

Geoffrey W. Rutledge

Geoffrey W. Rutledge

Geoffrey W. Rutledge MD, PhD, FACMI, Chief Medical Officer and co-founder at HealthTap, is a double-board certified physician who practiced and taught medicine for more than 25 years. He earned a PhD in medical computer science from Stanford, was an NIH-funded researcher, and served on faculty at Harvard, Stanford, and UCSD medical schools. Before HealthTap, he created the first consumer health website and PHR at Healtheon/WebMD.