Doctors Turn to Telemedicine to Diagnose the Flu

Flu is already hitting hard in 2015.
Flu is already hitting hard in 2015.

Flu season is here, and so far in 2015 it looks like it could be a bad one.

For the first week of January, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported elevated flu activity in 22 states. Complicating matters is the fact that this year’s flu vaccine is not as effective against the prevalent strain of flu, and as a result flu-related hospitalizations are going up.

Typically flu activity takes hold in the Southeastern US, spreads to the Midwestern states, and then continues to expand from there. After the holiday travel season ends, flu spreads as people return home. The city of Milwaukee recently reported 220 flu-related hospitalizations, which is more than twice the rate of one year ago.

The CDC is reporting that as of the week ending January 3, 7% of deaths reported through the Center’s 122 Cities Mortality Reporting System were due to pneumonia and influenza, putting it above the “epidemic” threshold of 6.9% for the week. The highest hospitalization rates for flu are among adults over age 65, followed by children in the 0-4 age group.

Spread of Flu in Healthcare Facilities

If you think you have the flu, you may not like the idea of going to your doctor’s office and potentially infecting other people in the waiting area. At the same time, if you’re sick with something else, you certainly don’t want to catch the flu while you’re waiting to see your doctor. With the average wait to see a doctor at 24 minutes, there’s plenty of opportunity for exposure to flu and other viruses in waiting rooms, though many facilities offer hand sanitizer stations and masks and step up surface cleaning during periods of high disease activity.

Since winter is peak “cold and flu” season, waiting rooms are more crowded than usual, and the combination of more people plus more viruses means that people’s concerns about flu transmission are justified. Some hospitals are limiting visitors and limiting the number of people accompanying patients to outpatient facilities in an effort to keep a lid on transmission of flu and other illnesses. And some facilities are turning to telemedicine to help reduce transmission.

How Telemedicine Visits Work for Flu Patients

Telemedicine can be tremendously helpful for both patients and healthcare providers when it comes to flu. That said, some people do need to see a physician in person if they believe they have the flu. People over age 65, children under age 5, pregnant women, people with asthma, heart disease, or other chronic conditions need to see a doctor in person if they have flu symptoms, because these people are at highest risk for dangerous complications from flu.

People who are not at risk for dangerous flu complications, however, can benefit from a telemedicine visit if they come down with flu symptoms. Some physicians and hospital groups are encouraging this, as a matter of fact. Through a Skype-like interface, sick patients can have a virtual face-to-face meeting with a doctor, nurse practitioner, or physician’s assistant and be evaluated for flu without ever leaving home. Prescriptions can be called in to the patient’s pharmacy of choice. And when a sick person has a non-sick friend or family member pick up the prescription, chances for disease transmission are further reduced.

Doctors aren’t overly concerned about misdiagnoses, since the rapid flu tests used by many practices aren’t that accurate in adults anyway. For people whose physicians don’t offer telemedicine, or who don’t have a telemedicine service as part of their health insurance benefits, services like Doctor on Demand offer virtual visits for a flat rate of $40, available in most states. Flu and flu-like illnesses are among the most common situations seen by these telemedicine services.

Telemedicine Can Reduce Absenteeism During Flu Season

Telemedicine hasn’t been around that long, but it’s starting to show real promise, particularly during flu season. An employer-based telemedicine service called healthPERX claims to reduce absenteeism since it allows employees to treat common ailments like flu quickly without having to schedule several hours off work for a traditional office visit. HealthPERX says that over 90% of telemedicine visits resulted in diagnosis and treatment last year, and of those, over half the patients would have had to leave work to visit a doctor. A utilization rate as low as 15 to 20% can produce a 100% return on investment when employers offer virtual visit telemedicine services.

Telemedicine allows people to avoid visits to urgent care centers and ERs after hours.
Telemedicine allows people to avoid visits to urgent care centers and ERs after hours.

Furthermore, since many telemedicine services are available during off hours, visits to urgent care clinics and expensive emergency room visits are reduced, holding down health insurance utilization costs. When used as intended, telemedicine visits can not only hold down healthcare costs on the part of patients, healthcare providers, and employers, they can help hold down disease transmission, because patients can receive care without leaving their home. Telemedicine is the 21st century version of the house call.


Up to 70% of doctor visits could be handled remotely via telemedicine, and it turns out that for much of the population, flu symptoms are perfectly suited to treatment through telemedicine. For those not at risk for serious flu complications, using telemedicine for flu diagnosis and treatment is more convenient, usually costs far less than a traditional doctor’s office visit, and helps prevent transmission of the virus, as can happen in crowded waiting rooms at healthcare facilities. In fact, some physicians and other healthcare facilities that offer telemedicine as an option are asking otherwise-healthy people who think they may have the flu to use telemedicine visits rather than in-person visits to help reduce spread of the flu, which can be very dangerous to the very young, the very old, and those with chronic health problems.

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