Brutal flu season leads to bump in virtual doctor ‘visits’
Dr. Mia Finkelston remembers a patient who didn’t have time to see a doctor. The woman had children, including a son with special needs, and couldn’t get away long enough for a medical appointment.
But about a month ago she turned to Finkelston, medical director of online care for Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s virtual care platform LiveHealth Online.
LiveHealth is among a growing number of telemedicine services through which a patient can conduct a doctor “visit” via video chat on their phone or other device. Finkelston, who serves a number of states on the east coast for LiveHealth — including Connecticut — said this recent patient’s son had gotten the flu and she was terrified of getting it, so she made her first ever visit to a telemedicine service. Finkelston said she’s been getting a lot of these calls lately, from people exposed to the flu who don’t want to get it, or from those who think they have the flu.
“These people don’t want to go to a doctor’s office because they don’t want to expose themselves to more germs, or don’t want to expose others to their germs,” she said.
Indeed, several telemedicine services have seen a spike in use during this flu season, one of the worst in recent memory. Anthem spokeswoman Sarah Yeager said that in Connecticut, the number of flu-related diagnoses alone done through LiveHealth online almost tripled between January of last year and January of this year, and nearly quintupled between February of last year and February of this year.
Non-flu-related visits have increased as well. Finkelston said that might be partly linked to people with general health problems not wishing to potentially expose themselves to flu by visiting a doctor’s office.
Flu numbers from Aug. 17 through Feb. 24:
2,161 patients hospitalized with confirmed cases
7,177 influenza positive laboratory tests
105 deaths (80 associated with influenza A, 25 with influenza B)
85 of deaths were patients over 65; 11 were 50-64; five were 25-49; one was between 19-24 and three were under 18
This year has been particularly brutal for the flu, both globally and here in Connecticut. The state Department of Public Health reported Thursday that for the week ending Feb. 24, emergency department visits for flu were down to 12 percent from the season’s three peak weeks at or above 14 percent, but the illness remains widespread.
The department reported that 2,161 patients had been hospitalized with confirmed cases of flu since Aug. 27, and that 7,177 positive laboratory tests had been been reported. There had also been 105 flu deaths deaths in Connecticut.
Given numbers like those, experts said it’s not surprising that more people are turning to online health platforms. These include local services such as St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport, which has seen a bump in use of its telemedicine platform, myvirtualcare.com, over the past two months. The service allows patients to fill out a questionnaire and get a professional assessment within an hour. The questionnaire adapts to patient’s answers the way a doctor would, and the service can even send prescriptions to the patient’s pharmacy electronically, if medicine is required.
“This online diagnosis and treatment service allows St. Vincent’s patients to ‘triage from anywhere’ for common medical conditions,” said Christopher Willey, vice president of operations and outpatient cardiology for the hospital’s MultiSpecialty Group. “During a severe flu season like we are currently experiencing, this virtual option gives our patients an alternative for treatment that can reduce their exposure to infectious diseases.”
Another service, Teladoc — a virtual health care business, headquartered in Purchase, N.Y., that works with more than 3,000 providers in 50 states — said visits related to the flu nationwide are double what they were last year at this time, and that visits were up overall. There are two possible reasons, said Jason Tibbels, vice president of health services for Teladoc.
“This has been a terrible flu season and people are becoming more aware of telemedicine,” he said.
A recent study by the health care-focused market research firm Professional Research Consultants also confirms Tibbels might be right about Americans being more educated about virtual platforms. The group’s recent National Consumer study, which questioned 1,000 people in 48 states about their health care use, found that use of telemedicine had gone up between 2015 and 2016, from 4 percent of those surveyed to 6 percent.
Of those that have used telemedicine, 70 percent said they had an “excellent” or “very good” experience.
Other businesses experiencing spikes include American Well, a Boston-based telehealth company. Since December, flu diagnoses alone through the company’s virtual health care platform have increased by more than 300 percent, across all 50 states. Like Tibbels, American Well medical director Sylvia Romm said people who need to see a doctor during this flu-pocalypse — for the flu or anything else — might not want to leave the comfort of their homes to seek care.
“Telemedicine apps like Amwell make it possible to check in with a licensed physician without leaving the house... or going to the crowded waiting room where you’re exposed to even more germs,” Romm said.
Finkelston was quick to point out that virtual care services aren’t meant to be a substitute for in-person care, and she will advise a patient make a non-virtual visit if the situation requires it (for instance, a patient with a sore throat who needs a throat culture). But, she said, virtual care has its place, and helping people during the current flu epidemic is a good example of that.
“It’s a first line of defense,” she said.