Those who fear they are infected with the swine flu may now go online to determine whether they are better off staying at home -- or if they should see their doctor immediately.
On Wednesday, Microsoft launched a new site called the H1N1 Response Center. The site lets users determine whether their symptoms are severe enough to warrant treatment in a hospital setting.
Using a questionnaire developed with health experts at Emory University, the tool poses a series of questions, from age and sex to the symptoms they are experiencing. Depending on their answers, those taking the assessment may receive a message advising them to stay home and rest -- or alternatively to call their doctor immediately.
"We just felt that this was something where we could jump in and lend a hand," said David Cerino, general manager of consumer health solutions for Microsoft, who said that the concept for the resource followed widespread public concern over the pandemic virus.
The rollout of the online tool is timely. Last week, a study by Trust for America's Health found that hospital capacity in 15 states could be overwhelmed by patients in the event of a widespread outbreak. Eliminating non-severe patients from hospital care is crucial, said Dr. Arthur Kellermann, professor of emergency medicine and an associate dean of the Emory School of Medicine.
"The important thing to remember is that [the swine flu] leads to relatively minor disease in the vast majority of people, but for some it is very severe," Kellermann said. "This tool has been designed very carefully and with a huge amount of work to pull those who are severely ill and those who are at high risk from this illness into the health care system, while at the same time reassuring those at low risk that it is both safe and prudent for them to stay at home, go to bed, take fluids and do what they need to do to recover.
Swine Flu Threatens to Overcrowd Hospitals
"[The swine flu] could overwhelm our system if we don't get information to people for them to make healthy choices."
Kellermann said the new offering is a "very close cousin" of flu.gov, the Web site that the government uses to disseminate information about the spread of influenza around the country. The tool also allows those who are administering the site to monitor outbreaks by gathering information on the number of people affected and where they are located.
And the new tool could come in handy for outbreaks to come.
"With this capability, I could envision that we could use this for future diseases -- let's say a future resurgence of SARS, or a food-borne outbreak," he said.
Online Swine Flu Tools Becoming More Widespread
While Microsoft is arguably the first to exploit an online symptom checker specifically to give users advice on what to do if they fear swine flu, other organizations such as Montefiore Medical Center in New York, are fielding their own entries into the growing pool of online tools to help the public understand more about swine flu.
"We are using My Montefiore -- an e-mail patient portal that uses a product called Relay Health to communicate to our patients about influenza," said Dr. Gary Kalkut, chief medical officer of Montefiore Medical Center. "We send out information about the flu, about clinics when vaccinations are available, and what to do if you are sick at home."
The messages sent out through the portal, which currently serves 37,000 subscribers, can also target according to a variety of characteristics that would affect their risk, such as whether or not they are pregnant. Steven Rosenthal, Montefiore's corporate vice president for network care management, said the portal is a boon for situations such as the swine flu pandemic.
"We have the same concerns that if all of these patients went to the physician's office and the emergency rooms, we would be overwhelmed," Rosenthal said.
Others are in the process of developing such tools. Rob Webb, chief executive officer for OptumHealth Care Solutions, noted that his organization plans to roll out its own tool to help consumers, known as NowClinic, beginning in December. The concept is an online doctor-patient portal that could be used to advise patients about what they should do if they suspect they have swine flu -- and that this information could help hospitals keep crowding down.
"The number one recommendation for people with swine flu from doctors is to stay home and recover," Webb said.
How Far Can Online Tools Go?
Cerino was quick to note that an appointment with the online tool should not be viewed as a substitute for a doctor's visit if such a course of action is needed.
"We're not giving you directives; we're giving you guidance," he said. "You have to make the decision on what you feel is best from there."
But the tool could still be seen as an important contributor to how consumers make their healthcare decisions. Cerino noted that those who use H1N1 Response Center can also opt to save their information using Microsoft's personal health record system known as HealthVault, which saves health records and other personal medical information for future reference.
"Now I just hit the print button, and that allows me to take that information to the doctor or medical professional in the clinic," he said.
Such tools, which directly connect patients to doctors online, may soon become an even more integral part of health care, Rosenthal said -- particularly as patients become more comfortable using such tools.
"Because [these tools] allow for secure communication between patients and doctors, it could be an integral first step in finding out if the symptoms you have warrant a visit to the doctor or the emergency room," he said.