The following article originally appeared in Health IT Outcomes.
The summer months are coming to end, school is beginning… which means the flu season is looming and providers must find better tactics to help prevent its spread.
While it may feel strange to talk about the flu while it is still warm in much of the country, this is the most important time of the year to start thinking about protecting those most vulnerable to the flu – especially our children. According to the CDC, the 2017-2018 flu season resulted in 172 pediatric deaths from the flu; approximately 80 percent of these deaths were children who had not been vaccinated.
Germs are everywhere – in the grocery store, at playgrounds, and all over our children’s schools. We teach our children appropriate hand hygiene, but they are still learning, and often not masters at disinfecting themselves. This simply reinforces that all children must be vaccinated and safe from the flu.
Many parents will schedule well-child visits at the end of summer break or the beginning of the school year. This is a perfect time for providers to begin educating patients and parents on the upcoming flu season. Even if the vaccine is not yet available, providers should be discussing the importance of timely vaccinations and providing information on where and when the patient can receive the flu shot.
Increasing numbers of children suffer from chronic illnesses, such as asthma. This places them at much higher risk for contracting the flu. Combine that with inherent germ exposure and the results are jarring.
Why Healthcare Providers Should Start Preparing Now
Providers must begin thinking about how they are going to keep their patients and communities safe from the flu. This must happen now, rather than waiting for the flu shot to become available. Although the flu exists throughout the year, there is a significant peak from December through February and providers must be proactive in ensuring that their patients have been vaccinated before peak flu season.
Physicians and other healthcare providers should be diligent in educating patients about the flu, and ensure it is easy and inexpensive to get vaccinated. Since it takes approximately two weeks for the vaccination to be fully effective, providers must encourage their patients to receive the flu shot early.
Treatments, such as Tamiflu, lessen symptoms of infected patients, however, this treatment must be initiated soon after the onset of symptoms. In addition to educating patients about the flu vaccine, healthcare providers must also share the importance of communicating symptoms early. It is not uncommon for patients to initially think they have a “cold” and not seek care upon onset of initial symptoms. This increases the risk of spreading the virus, as well as experiencing more severe symptoms that may require hospitalization.
With the fast-paced American culture in mind, people need to be reminded of the importance of receiving the flu vaccine, and then reminded again, and again, until they have been vaccinated or deemed not appropriate for vaccination.
How Technology Can Help
As a nurse, I understand how challenging it can be to educate all patients on the importance of vaccination. To offset some of these challenges, providers can look to technology to help in the process. It is very important that everyone get the flu shot; leveraging data in the EMR will help providers understand which patients have been vaccinated, as well as other high-risk patients that may require additional education or assistance scheduling their flu shot.
Providers often assign an internal resource to contact patients to communicate the importance of the flu vaccine, as well as share locations where a patient can be vaccinated. Because this process is very timely and tedious, some providers have leveraged automated messages via call or text to ensure every patient has received communication about the flu shot. By automating this process, providers can reach significantly more patients and continue to remind those who require ongoing education on the importance of receiving the flu vaccine.
This type of technology is being utilized across the country to help increase vaccination rates, especially amongst the elderly and pediatric populations. By calling or texting patients, providers are increasing the odds that a patient will take action and protect themselves from contracting or spreading the flu. This preventive measure can help significantly decrease the number of flu-related visits and adverse events.
As summer comes to a close, I encourage providers to think proactively about how they are engaging patients in flu prevention. By creating population-wide awareness and educational programs to increase vaccination compliance, providers can ensure that all measures were taken to encourage patients to get the flu shot, and even allows them to get a few more reminders to those who need it most.