While we prepare for the holidays and get into the festive spirit, it’s also time to keep in mind that we are already in the midst of flu season. All the extra hugs and handshakes that are exchanged at family gatherings, holiday parties and school concerts are added chances to spread the flu and other germs.
While we all need to be knowledgeable of ways to protect ourselves and our families from acquiring and spreading the flu, it is especially important for hospital, health system and physician practice staff to have an active role in informing patients about the facts of flu prevention, diagnosis and treatment. To engage and influence patients and families to prevent the flu, consider these strategies:
Offer an overview of the flu season: Patients usually want to know how the current flu season is shaping up and how it compares to the previous season. Providers can rely on resources like Google Flu Trends in the U.S. and Canada, and the Weekly U.S. Map: Influenza Summary Update, while also presenting feedback on the number of flu cases treated by local practices and emergency departments.
Answer patients’ frequently asked questions: Particularly staff in family practice, internal medicine, emergency medicine, infectious diseases or pediatrics who will be on the frontlines of the flu need to be prepared to answer frequently asked questions such as:
- “Can I get the flu twice in one year?”
- “Can I just get the flu in the winter?”
- “Can you get sick from a flu shot?”
Distinguish myths from realities: Popular discussions of flu prevention and treatment are sometimes filled with half-truths, folk wisdom and what can literally be deadly advice. Among the myths and stereotypes you’ll want to counter with statistics and medical expertise are the following:
- “Getting the flu is like getting a cold. You get over it.” Not always the case as the flu can wreak havoc – especially on the young and elderly and those with compromised immune systems.
- “Getting the flu vaccine makes you get the flu.” There is a chance you can have a reaction following a flu vaccine, but patients should always consult with you, the healthcare expert, with questions like this.
- “As long as you keep yourself healthy, you don’t need to get a flu shot.” The flu does not discriminate and anyone can be susceptible. The key is to protect yourself and those around you who might not be as healthy.
- “Flu vaccines just don’t work.” Efficacy of the flu vaccine varies from year-to-year and can affect other people differently, according to the CDC. One study showed that flu vaccination was associated with a 71 percent reduction in flu-related hospitalizations among adults of all ages and a 77 percent reduction among adults 50 years of age and older during the 2011-2012 flu season.
- “Flu shots are expensive. I can’t afford it.” Many community organizations, physician offices and hospitals offer free or discounted flu shots to ensure as many people are protected as possible. Your office or hospital might even do this! Additionally, under the Affordable Care Act in the U.S., many people will not have to pay for a shot, and some provinces in Canada offer free access. Flu clinics can be located in the U.S. and Canada.
Be prepared to address the issue of who should get a flu shot: Some people still assume that flu shots are only for seniors, small children and the very sick. Address the following questions, supported by guidance from the CDC:
- “Who should get a flu shot?”
- “Is it safe to get a flu shot if I’m pregnant?”
- “Who shouldn’t get a flu shot?”
- “I had a flu shot last year. Do I need another one?”
- “How good is the vaccine this year?”
Refresh your staff and patients on the basics: Proper hand hygiene is the easiest way to prevent the spread of the flu. Make sure patients understand the proper way to clean their hands. The CDC and Canada’s Hand Hygiene Challenge have great resources for patient education on hand washing best practices.
Also to prevent spreading germs from patient to clinician to patient, you and your staff should know the World Health Organization recommended five instances where clinical staff should clean their hands with soap and water or alcohol-based sanitizer to best stave off the spread of germs. Staff education on and compliant execution of the WHO’s Five Moments for Hand Hygiene (Four Moments in Canada) can be instrumental in infection prevention, especially during the flu season. The moments include:
- before touching a patient,
- before clean/aseptic procedures,
- after body fluid exposure/risk,
- after touching a patient, and
- after touching patient surroundings.
Find flu communication partners: Providers may want to follow the lead of Focus on Flu, a campaign developed by the City of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County and four local hospital systems. The campaign directs patients to locations where they can get flu shots, while offering advice on flu prevention. The World Health Organization and the Government of Canada also offer numerous resources on and medical staff education, prevention and treatment for the flu.
Involve all employees in flu prevention: Many healthcare organizations, including Johns Hopkins, conduct flu prevention campaigns for employees. The medical center offers locations for flu shots along with FAQs that explain the mandatory vaccination policy. The core message: When hospital employees receive flu vaccinations, influenza rates decline, according to a study reported by the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC).
Physicians, nurses and clinical staff are on the frontlines of ensuring we all stay healthy this flu season. While the temperatures drop quickly and the chances of flu spread increase, following recommended approaches for patient education and prevention will be paramount to keeping cases of the flu at a minimum this year.