The Virtual Visit Might be This Cold and Flu Season’s MVP

Eric Futscher, M.D., Family Medicine

As we prepare to enter cold and flu season, officials are urging communities to start thinking about flu prevention earlier this year, especially those most at risk for flu-related complications. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that everyone 6 months and older should get a flu vaccine every season with rare exceptions. 

While there’s no way to determine how bad a flu season will be, many are concerned that the overlap between cold and flu season and the coronavirus pandemic could potentially cause issues because emergency departments, doctor’s offices and urgent care clinics typically already see a rise in patients during cold and flu season. Getting your flu shot this year can help prevent those visits — potentially preventing flu patients and COVID-19 patients from interacting with each other. Luckily, physicians have another tool in their belt to help prevent the spread — the Virtual Visit. 

Eric Futscher, M.D., a family medicine physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Family Care in Grapevine, says a Virtual Visit is a “win-win” for almost everyone involved. 

“Most seasonal allergy, cold and flu symptoms can be resolved through telehealth with the caveat that some patients may be asked to go to a testing center or stop by our office for additional testing (such as a strep swab),” he explains. “This not only allows us to care for the patient but also protect patients in our clinic and protect our staff members.” 

That being said, you may still be wondering how you can effectively be treated this season through a Virtual Visit, whether you’re showing cold or flu symptoms or something more typical of COVID-19.  

While the flu and COVID-19 are both respiratory illnesses caused by different viruses and share a lot of the same symptoms, there are some key differences between the two that can help a physician make a diagnosis, such as the presence of a fever and its severity, and if you have lost your sense of taste or smell. The onset and length of symptoms also differ greatly between the two, with flu symptoms typically arising 1 to 4 days after infection and COVID-19 symptoms taking around 5 to 14 days. People with the flu also tend to recover in a few days or up to two weeks, while those with COVID-19 can take longer to recover. 

Additionally, in the past, an otherwise healthy person may choose to ride out their suspected flu at home unless symptoms get worse or they start experiencing complications. Virtual Visits can help bridge that gap if you think you might need to come in after all.  

“After talking to the patient virtually and asking them about their symptoms, when they started and the severity, if we suspect they have the flu, our procedures don’t differ much from an in-person visit. We ask patients to be swabbed for the flu at a testing center of their choice, and then we can send in a prescription if needed to their pharmacy without the patient ever needing to enter our office.”

If you’re still a bit skeptical or have underlying medical conditions that concern you, Futscher says he encourages all patients with symptoms to call into the office so the provider can decide if it’s more appropriate to do a Virtual Visit or a face-to-face visit. “From there we can work with the patient to come up with a treatment plan,” he adds.

Ultimately, Futscher says he wants patients and providers to choose the visit format they’re most comfortable with. As patients and providers use telemedicine, both parties will feel more confident in combining technology and medicine. Together, patients and providers can  choose the visit type they’re most comfortable with but encourages sick visits to be Virtual for the time being so they can reserve in-person visits for chronic disease management such as hypertension, diabetes, and annual physicals.”

Because of the special circumstances of the cold and flu season, Futscher is recommending getting your flu shot in September, if available, instead of their usual recommendation of October. 

Thankfully, the recommendations to reduce your chances of getting the flu this year are some things you are most likely already doing right now because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We always advise patients to wear a mask, keep distanced, eat healthily and get proper rest each night,” Futscher says. “If you start to develop symptoms, let your provider know as soon as possible — ideally within 72 hours of symptom onset.” 

Talking to your doctor virtually this year may be a new and strange experience for you, but Virtual Visits can help everyone stay safe during this time and free-up in-person visits for those who cannot have a Virtual Visit.  

Finding a physician who can partner with you for your health is essential. We can help find a physician who is appropriate and convenient for you. Call 1-877-THR-WELL (847-9355) or visit TexasHealth.org/FindaProvider today. 

To learn more about what Virtual Visits and what illnesses or conditions are better suited for an in-person visit, please read our post “The Virtual Patient Experience During COVID-19.” To learn more about the protocols we have in place designed around your safety, visit TexasHealth.org/WithYou.

Texas Health Physicians Group providers are employed by Texas Health Physicians Group and are not employees or agents of Texas Health Resources hospitals.

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