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Cold weather alerts

From the winter vomiting virus to spring hay fever, summer heat strokes to autumn seasonal affective disorders (SAD); every season has its peak illnesses. Of course, any of these can occur at any time, but health professionals are aware that as the seasons turn so too do differing conditions come to the fore.

With that in mind, as health professionals just how do you prepare to meet the differing challenges which the changing of the seasons throws up? It’s not always easy. Whilst some conditions, such as SAD which is triggered by shortening day length, are fairly easy to predict; others may depend on more variable factors.

For example, whilst summer rains might initially help allergy sufferers by washing pollen out of the air, a couple of days later with plant growth having been triggered by the rain you may well find an increase in pollen or mould levels, leading to an increase in allergy presentations. Or to look at another scenario, winter slips and falls are far more likely to occur in icy conditions than on comparatively milder days.

What this adds up to is a need for weather to be taken into account in resource planning. Local forecasts may be of help here, especially when viewed alongside national resources such as the Met Office’s cold weather alert service.

Operating from 1 November to 31 March each year in conjunction with the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), the cold weather alert service aims to reduce the impact of severe cold weather on people’s health. It does so by not only predicting weather severity but also providing advice to individuals, communities and agency on how they should prepare and manage differing scenarios.

Building on an alert level 0 which looks towards all year round planning, four other levels look towards steps required to manage anything from mild winter conditions (Level 1) to a major weather incident (Level 4.) So, for instance, Level 2 looks for social and healthcare services to work to ensure that they are prepared to take swift action to reduce the risk of harm from a period of cold weather whilst Level 3 requires those agencies to take specific actions in order to protect high-risk groups.

At the time of writing we are facing alert level 1 in the three northernmost regions of England with alert level 2 across the rest of the country. The level 2 alert specifically warns of a “70% probability of severe cold weather between 1800 on Thursday 13 Jan and 0900 on Monday 17 Jan in parts of England. This weather could increase the health risks to vulnerable patients and disrupt the delivery of services.”

Information such as this helps health providers to create flexible solutions which can be triggered depending on need. Even something as simple as being able to transfer phone calls to a virtual assistant service when demand is high could help with resource management. When the pressure is on to treat as many individuals as possible, the ability to outsource some routine administration matters such as phone answering or even the booking of appointments could just tip the balance towards effective care when it is most needed.

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