Flu: Catch it, report it, deliver care

In December we wrote about the challenges faced by A&E departments and in the process made a passing mention of the effects of winter flu on the health service. Now that potential has become a reality with “Australian flu” rapidly spreading across the country and in the process placing even further strains on health provision.

At the time of writing according to the Influenza survey operated by Public Health England, there are only a few pockets of resistance which have yet to report flu cases with many areas heading rapidly towards the red, or very high, end of reported cases. Having said that, whilst any flu is a matter for concern, according to PHE the number of cases reported to date is broadly in line with previous years.

The flu survey, which was originally launched in 2009 in response to the swine flu epidemic, is part of a pan-European initiative to monitor influenza like illnesses. These are described as sudden onset symptoms displaying:

  • at least one of Fever (chills); Malaise; Headache; Muscle pain and
  • at least one of Cough; Sore throat; Shortness of breath

More than 7,500 people across the UK already participate in the flu survey but Public Health England would like more people to take part by signing up online in order to boost research and understanding. In the meantime there are a number of measures which people can take, either on their own or in the workplace, to reduce the spread of flu. These include regularly washing hands, sanitising common work areas such as phones and keyboards and encouraging the use of tissues to catch and bin coughs and sneezes.

Nevertheless, flu is placing a strain on health resources with elective surgeries being postponed and health staff, including backroom employees, being redeployed in order to maximise care time. Although only the most serious cases should end up in hospital, inevitably pressure on hospital resources has a knock on effect right throughout the health system. For example, physiotherapists and others may have to continue to provide a level of ongoing care for those whose operations have been postponed. Similarly, with pressure on hospitals to discharge patients in order to free up bed space, additional post-operative treatments may have to be carried out in the community, adding to pressure on health resources.

All this at a time in which health professionals including physiotherapists and osteopaths together with their own support staff may be short staffed due to flu. As with any patient-facing service there is little option for people to work from home. Nevertheless, sending staff home when they feel unwell does make sense if it avoids them passing illness around the health practice. This is where a virtual assistant service may come in handy. Delegating routine tasks such as phone answering and diary handling over to an external virtual assistant service enables continuity of care whilst maximising front line resources. Similarly, switching to an online patient records service could save administrative time and enable patient details to be available at the touch of a button rather than found by searching in a filing cabinet.

However the flu season develops it pays to plan and be aware. By catching possible cases early staff can be sent home before they affect others. Online reporting will help to monitor the outbreak and provide data for future research whilst moving processes online could help to provide continuity of care. The flu season affects everyone in the health sector; it’s never too late for all of us to play our part.