Is Your Swine Flu Severe? Find Out Online

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.

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