Flu season is the worst it has been since health officials began keeping records in 2004, and by some measures, it’s still getting worse.
According to a recent weekly flu report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 53 flu-related deaths this season. The disease is currently active in 48 states and Puerto Rico, CNN reported.
While hospitals and urgent care clinics are filled up with patients waiting for treatment, there are other innovative options available that can deliver treatment to patients faster and with more cost effectiveness.
One option that has been gaining momentum in recent years is telemedicine.
This can allow patients to “visit” doctors via phone or video chat programs, like Skype.
Telemedicine removes the need to visit a doctor’s office or emergency room for non-life-threatening conditions like a seasonal illness.
“This is a much better option than going to the emergency department for a non-emergent visit,” said Dr. Stormee Williams, with Children’s Health, according to an NBC DFW interview.
“These are the kinds of modalities that can help us to contain those illnesses, to help prevent the spread of disease,” Williams said. “In the emergency room, it’s filled with sick people, so we don’t want other healthy people, including parents, to get sick while waiting in the ER.”
This option worked great for me when I recently came down with a lingering cold.
I’d been suffering from an illness for a week and wasn’t getting better. Worse, I was set to take a long flight from the East Coast to the West Coast and was worried about being so sick on a plane.
The morning before my flight, I considered checking into an urgent care clinic because my condition was still bad. Of course, checking into a Washington, D.C., urgent care clinic during flu season likely meant that I would have to take time off work and wait for hours to see a doctor.
This was unappealing to say the least.
My wife recommended that I try another approach and use telemedicine, which my insurance covered.
So I signed up for the service, got an appointment, spoke to a doctor, got a prescription, and picked the medicine up from the drug store, all before getting on my afternoon flight. After being prescribed an antibiotic, my lingering illness disappeared in a few days.
The whole process was amazingly efficient. It saved me a lot of time and effort.
Telemedicine has other applications outside of flu season.
In an interview with The Insider, Robert Graboyes, a fellow at the Mercatus Center, said:
[T]here are tremendous benefits to telemedicine, especially in rural states, where you tend to be more isolated. Or if you’re a single mother with three or four kids, it’s very difficult to find a way to get to the doctor’s office if one of the children is sick, and telemedicine offers more opportunities. Telemedicine can mean earlier and less expensive diagnosis.
As Heritage Foundation senior health care policy expert Bob Moffit wrote in a recent policy paper, “There is strong evidence that telehealth improves medical outcomes and saves money.”
Moffit wrote that the Maryland Health Care Commission, which he serves on, “carried out demonstration projects for patients with chronic illnesses” in 2017.
The commission concluded that significant progress was made in the “management of diabetes … congestive heart failure, hypertension, and hospital readmission rates.”
Unfortunately, many states have created significant regulatory hurdles for telemedicine—for instance, by forcing customers to use only doctors they have met personally.
It’s important for state officials to “review and eliminate any legal or regulatory barriers to telehealth, an initiative that improves medical outcomes and saves money,” Moffit wrote in The Daily Signal.
While Obamacare remains the law of the land, states can still attempt to innovate and create solutions to health care problems by allowing new technologies to bring greater access to the people who need it.
Telemedicine is certainly one of those important innovations, and a much-needed one as the nation copes with flu season this year.