Every year, when the number of flu cases grows, healthcare centers burst at the seams. Paradoxically, in order to get medical advice, patients infect other people in waiting rooms, on public transport, and in workplaces. Or they get infected if they are healthy. The COVID-19 pandemic made us realize that we could do it all differently. So, if you really don’t have to see your doctor, #StayAtHome and switch to telemedicine visits – to protect yourself, others, and medical staff. To reduce the burden on the healthcare system. For shared responsibility.
Small, harmful mistakes
It is the same every autumn and winter: crowds in outpatient clinics and waiting rooms, coughing and sneezing on people in offices and cinemas, on buses, at schools, and concerts. In the case of seasonal flu, a patient statistically infects one person. Therefore, the growth in the number of cases is not exponential (as it is for the coronavirus), but linear. According to data collected by the World Health Organization, every year about 1 billion people come down with the flu, 3–5 million cases are severe, and approximately 290,000–650,000 people die. These numbers show us how little has changed in recent years to improve the prevention of contagious diseases, such as the flu.
We have vaccines, but a relatively small percentage of the population gets vaccinated. Eurostat data show that, on average, 43% of Europeans aged 65 or older are vaccinated against the flu. There are vast differences across countries. In the United Kingdom, it is over 70%, in Germany, it is half that number, and in Estonia, it is just 3%. On the one hand, we can imagine what the mortality rate would look like without vaccines, and on the other, alarming statistics do not serve as sufficient motivation, even for people in risk groups.
The COVID-19 pandemic came as a shock and an unpleasant lesson of disease prevention for all of us. Not only for selected people in risk groups but for every person – without exceptions. What communicable diseases experts have been saying for a long time is finally reaching politicians and gaining social recognition. Science has turned out to be disciplines of strategic importance, not only for health-related disciplines but also for social welfare and economic development.
We did not listen to epidemiologists because they were talking about an abstract risk which could be seen and experienced first-hand. We got accustomed to the common cold and the flu because they have always accompanied us. We used to regard visions of larger epidemics as far-fetched scenarios which might happen someday, but not in our lifetime. Many deadly diseases were eliminated thanks to vaccines, so the present generation does not know how many victims used to be claimed by measles or smallpox.
Clever engagement for prevention
Everyone is responsible for the health of others. When we make nothing of the flu, take medications which minimize its symptoms, and keep participating in social life (go to work, the cinema, or school), we put other people at risk of being infected. We become the source of infection ourselves.
It is not viruses that infect people, it is people who infect others with viruses. During the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, the most effective medicine has turned out to be limiting social contacts, keeping physical distance, and washing hands. These simple procedures were almost forgotten in today’s modern world that is under continuous development. In many countries, citizens have obeyed administration orders and suspended social contact for some time to flatten the infection curve and avoid overburdening the healthcare system. Today, it is easier thanks to new information and communication technologies. It is also a remarkable lesson for the future, a lesson in solidarity, maturity, and awareness. Instead of infecting colleagues with the flu during business meetings, you can just as well organize a teleconference from your own home. It is feasible in the case of some jobs, but of course not all of them. Children can participate in online lessons, even when only one person is sick, and other students attend classes in the usual way. A movie can be watched on the couch instead of in the cinema. Today you can even virtually visit the museum or eat a meal from your favorite restaurant without leaving your home.
Make the queue shorter but still get advice
You do not need to visit a doctor right after your nose starts running or as soon as you get a sore throat. When your health condition is stable, it is enough to consult a doctor using telemedical solutions. Based on your medical history, or even without access to your EHR, the doctor can initially determine your health condition at a distance and decide whether you must visit a doctor’s office. The doctor can also prescribe medications by sending you an electronic prescription. Patients have nothing to fear. Doctors are knowledgeable enough to make an initial diagnosis based on a conversation with the patient. Online triage or health assessment systems could be the very first step before making an appointment with a doctor.
When we stay at home, we keep the virus in check. In this way, we do not infect other people, especially those at higher risk of infection or with comorbidities. This way, we do not overburden the healthcare system, so the waiting line for the face-to-face appointment is shorter for those who really need help. The things that many people were not aware of in the past are becoming obvious now and should not be forgotten in the future. Digital health technologies are here to be used smartly. We can see that telemedicine is not a technology which exists for its own sake, but a part of preventive healthcare and a method of increasing the effectiveness of the healthcare system.
The message to “stay at home” should forever change the behavior of people who come down with the flu or the common cold. Stay at home, book an online doctor’s appointment, and behave responsibly. This solidarity and joint responsibility can become new values in healthcare after the coronavirus pandemic.
Graphic: Artur Olesch
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