AMA's flu site 1st to link to care after rating symptoms

After patients answer questions online, they can request results be forwarded to their physicians

By Pamela Lewis Dolan — Posted Nov. 2, 2009

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Several organizations have launched Web sites in recent weeks that help patients determine the severity of flu symptoms. But the American Medical Association on Oct. 22 launched a site that it says is the first to offer patients the opportunity to not only complete an assessment but also allow direct communication with their personal physicians.

The Web site takes patients through a series of questions to determine the severity of symptoms and how likely it is they have seasonal flu or influenza (A)H1N1 (link).

A patient can then send the results to his or her physician -- provided the patient knows the doctor's e-mail address and the physician has signed up for the site.

The online resource tool was developed with the help of several partners, referred to as the Flu Information and Care System, including Healthy Circles, the personal health record powered by Microsoft's HealthVault. Patients can either do the flu assessment anonymously or create a Healthy Circles account, which is what is shared with the physician.

The algorithm for the assessment was developed by the AMA with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"With both seasonal flu and H1N1 circulating this year, physician offices are already busier than normal," said Mary Anne McCaffree, MD, a member of the AMA Board of Trustees. "This resource allows patients to assess their symptoms and determine when to seek care for themselves or their loved ones. To prevent the spread of influenza, this site also helps determine when it is safe for those who have been sick to return to work or school."

James Campbell, MD, a pediatrician from Denver, said he was eager to use the site because of the increased volume of flu-related calls his practice is receiving.

"It's a humbling experience, quite honestly, to see the sheer demand from patients for the care that they do need," he said. "And our ability to respond as quickly as we can is sometimes compromised."

Dr. Campbell said he hopes directing more patients to the site will help alleviate the burden on his practice.

Colorado is the first state to link to the flu assessment tool from its health department Web site as part of the state's response to the outbreak.

James Mault, MD, chair and CEO of Healthy Circles, said physicians who sign up with the AMA site can see a list of their patients who have completed the questionnaire and requested that answers be shared. The physicians can see how each of these patients answered questions and see any stored medical histories.

The system uses a color-coded flagging system that triages patients and alerts physicians to patients with life-threatening symptoms.

Use of the online flu assessment tool is free for both patients and physicians. Physicians can decide if and how they want to charge patients for consultations facilitated via the Web site, online or by phone. Some health insurance plans cover those activities.

What's different from other sites

Similar Web sites, such as those launched by the Mayo Clinic and Emory University School of Medicine allow patients to send assessment information to HealthVault accounts that can be shared with physicians. But the AMA says its online tool is the only one that allows two-way communication between physicians and patients without leaving the site.

Both the Emory and AMA sites are expected to remain beyond the flu pandemic. The Emory site was created at a December 2008 conference at which a national panel brainstormed a decision-support tool to be used in a hypothetical pandemic outbreak. It can be modified for any pandemic threat. (See Clarification)

The AMA said its site will eventually be expanded to facilitate better continuity of care between patients and their caregivers.

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This article gave an unclear date for the start of the online flu assessment tool by Microsoft, which includes information from the Emory University School of Medicine. The idea for the site was developed in December 2008; the site was launched on Oct. 7, 2009. Also, what was described as the Emory site is actually run by Microsoft.

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