Flu season during COVID-19: What you need to know now

By Jennifer Lewy | October 16, 2020

flu shot

We don’t know how the COVID-19 pandemic will progress this winter, but we do know that flu season is upon us. What should healthcare providers do now to prepare?

Bethany Sheridan of athenahealth’s Research and Insights team shared best practices about what providers should be doing now, before flu season starts in earnest. To stay informed, she says, providers can monitor the spread of influenza across the U.S. with athenahealth’s online flu tracker. This highly accurate tool draws from the athenahealth network to get near-real-time visibility into national and state trends.

This year, athenahealth developed a similar tracker to capture COVID-19 testing and positivity rates each week across the country, and by state. “Right now, a lot of people are concerned that we may enter another difficult phase in the pandemic just as winter approaches and flu season picks up — a dangerous situation with both occurring at once,” said Sheridan.

Despite the potential “twindemic” of flu and COVID-19, many people are not seeking flu vaccines this year. In fact, 32 percent of parents don’t intend to vaccinate their child against the flu this year, reports Becker’s Hospital Review, and only 44 percent of parents surveyed said their child's regular healthcare provider strongly recommends that their child get the flu vaccine this year. In another Forbes survey, only 59 percent of U.S. adults said they would get a flu vaccine this season.

Promoting flu vaccination is “not a one size fits all approach”

Healthcare providers have an opportunity to reach out to patients about the urgency and importance of flu vaccination. “Making sure patients and families are informed about vaccinations is critical,” said Sheridan. “Providers need to educate around common misconceptions.”

So how can physicians reach patients with the right messaging? And what communication channels should they use? Patients expect their interactions with providers to be convenient and digital, just like most areas of their lives. That means providers can’t rely on a single type of communication to effectively engage all patients.

“It’s not a one size fits all approach,” Sheridan said. “One thing we know from our network data, for example, is that younger patients are more likely to sign up to receive outreach from their providers via text or SMS, whereas older patients are more likely to opt into email communications.” Using a diversity of channels and messaging can help providers reach more patients across the board.

Engage patients at scale and automate scheduling

In fact, tailored email and text messaging can have a significant impact on flu vaccination rates. One obstetrics and gynecology group based in North Carolina with 331 care centers nationwide designs campaigns to alert patients by text message or email when they need a flu shot. They use messages such as "Don't forget you are due for an annual and a flu shot.” The concept of an all-in-one appointment feels convenient for patients since they can avoid multiple office visits.

Using athenahealth’s template for patient communication, the practice creates custom messaging and screens out patients that already received their flu shots. As a result, the group's open and click-through rates are quite high compared to medical community communication benchmarks—they have a 73 percent open rate.

Conducting a broad flu vaccine campaign can pose challenges when it comes to scheduling. A multi-specialty group with 80 locations across New Jersey recently reached out to 300,000-plus patients — resulting in 1,000 flu shot appointments scheduled within 30 days. With the help of athenaCommunicator, the practice steers patients to online portals and web scheduling so front desk staff don’t get overwhelmed with patient calls.

Close care gaps to boost flu vaccine rates

When patients need preventive care, it’s helpful to offer flu vaccines at every opportunity. One practice demonstrates how to apply best practices in closing care gaps, resulting in higher-than-average flu vaccine rates.

This group is an independent primary care practice with four locations in Massachusetts’ Berkshire County. Everyone from physicians to reception staff has a defined role in addressing care gaps before and after each patient’s visit. The process begins with a tailored message inviting patients to schedule their preventive care. Before the visit, the practice queues up records and identifies patients that need screenings or immunizations so those can be addressed.

However, the practice knows that many of their patients will not schedule annual wellness visits. So they also take advantage of sick visits to close care gaps, and will offer a flu vaccine when a patient is already in the office. Every phase of the process is scheduled, and every task assigned. Patients do not fall through the cracks — and neither do flu vaccinations.

Be ready for an extraordinary flu season

Practices are likely busier than ever this season. Having the ability to tailor outreach to contact the right people at the right time and close care gaps is essential to easing staff burden. “No matter where you are in your flu vaccination efforts this year,” said Sheridan, “the best strategy for patients and providers is to be ready for an unprecedented season.”

To hear more from Bethany Sheridan and athenahealth’s Research & Insights team watch this webinar.

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