Earlier this week, we reported on the current rates of influenza-like illness (ILI), based on data from roughly one million patient visits on the athenahealth network. That report showed a steep increase in ILI rates for the week ending Saturday, December 13 (see previous post). It’s not certain that this season will be as severe as that of 2012-2013 (data for pediatrics suggests that is a real possibility); however, providers are testing for flu more consistently than previous years, and prescribing antivirals more often.
Our data shows that the number of flu tests ordered, per patient visit in which ILI is diagnosed, has risen each of the past two years (Figure 1, graph A). This season, providers are ordering flu tests at a rate of 0.53 tests per visit with an ILI diagnosis, compared to 0.37 for last season and 0.34 for 2012-2013. (Note: There can be multiple tests per patient visit, e.g. Type A and B.)
On occasion, your correspondent fights the northeast’s dreary weekend winter evenings with a dram of spirituous liquor like Macallan 12. Unlocked with a small splash of water and a single ice cube, a generous ounce of that pungent cinnamon leathery elixir turns the cold into cozy.
So naturally, your correspondent relies on spouse to help keep a therapeutic stock available. Both yours truly and spouse run errands and it shouldn’t be too hard for either to be proactive by periodically checking supplies, buying some Macallan when necessary and avoiding the unhappiness of a dispirited and cold author.
Unfortunately, spouse doesn’t always see it that way.
Welcome to the complicated world of behavioral economics. It tells us that it’s difficult for persons to expend effort today to reduce the tomorrow’s risk of an unlikely event. It’s why many persons chose to not take or pay for medications today to reduce the distant likelihood of disability or early death. There’s more on the topic here.
This also explains why persons don’t do a good job getting a flu shot for themselves or their loved ones. Check out this interesting information from athenahealth. According to their pooled electronic health record (EHR) data, 2.5% of children without a flu shot came down with the flu, versus only 0.9% of those who got the shot. While getting a shot reduced the relative risk of coming down with the disease by approximately two thirds, the vast majority of kids who went without immunization (97.5%) did OK. Data from the CDC in adults reflects the same kind of numbers: 80% of persons in the U.S. do not come down with the flu in the course of the year.
How can the population health and care management community leverage behavioral economics to increase immunization rates?
The CDC has noted an early and nasty start to the flu season. Perhaps their own website has caught it, because as I’m writing this, the whole thing is down. Assuming it recovers, I will insert relevant links per routine. Otherwise, I wish it well, and leave you to find your way there on your own.
It’s a bit soon to say, but the virus and the outbreak pattern at this point seem to resemble those of the 2003-2004 flu season, in which nearly 50,000 Americans died. At least two children have already died of flu complications this fall.
This is not the sort of stuff a public health physician can ignore.
So, I recently noted on LinkedIn andTwitter that I’ve been vaccinated — as I am every year — and recommend this year’s vaccine, which appears to match the prevailing viral strain quite well, to everyone else. I promptly got comments back from naysayers, including at least one self-identified microbiologist, who noted he never got vaccinated, and had “never gotten the flu.”
I believe him. But this is like that proverbial “Uncle Joe” everyone knows, who smoked three packs a day and lived to be 119. It could happen — but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. Uncle Joe is that rare character who somehow comes away from a train crash with a minor flesh wound. The rest of us are mortal.
But there is something more fundamentally wrong with the “I’ve never gotten the flu, and therefore don’t need to be vaccinated” stance than the Uncle Joe fallacy. Let’s face it — those who were ultimately beneficiaries of smallpox or polio immunization never had smallpox or polio, either. If they ever had, it would have been too late for those vaccines to do them any good.