Fighting the flu more efficiently

For health officials around the state, the very idea of flu season is enough to make one want to call in sick.

It’s a season of challenges for patients and healthcare providers alike; one that means longer-than-normal waiting lines in emergency rooms and hospital resources stretched to the limit.

As the epidemic in Fort Worth was reaching its apex, John Peter Smith Hospital issued a Code Yellow, the first hospital in the area to take such action. As one JPS official described it, a Code Yellow “raises the flag,” notifying the public and other hospitals that a crisis is afoot.

It also initiates a series of activities that seek to abate some of the pressure on the emergency room, including postponing routine and elective surgeries and expanding hours at six of JPS’ 18 community health clinics scattered throughout the county.

By extending clinic hours, the JPS system can more efficiently treat patients who would otherwise spend hours in hospital emergency departments, waiting for flu-symptom care that could be just as easily — and more cheaply — addressed in a non-hospital setting.

From Jan. 16 through Jan. 26 (the Code Yellow ended on Monday), JPS clinics saw 461 patients during extra evening and weekend hours.

Neither the financial advantage of diverting patients away from emergency rooms nor the time saved by patients treated more effectively by clinics can be quantified. But both illustrate the wisdom of JPS’ action.

Encouraging patients to visit clinics also increases community awareness about alternatives to the emergency room.

As people become more aware, they are more likely to use clinics in the future, particularly in situations that do not require the attention of emergency care professionals.

Fighting pandemics like the flu also requires a community effort. To that end, the major hospitals in Fort Worth have a uniquely cooperative relationship that allows them to work together productively in times of crisis.

During the most recent flu outbreak, they kept in close touch regarding space availability, number of patients on ventilators and other useful information that allows the healthcare providers in Tarrant County — otherwise in competition — to share the burden of such crises.

Our healthcare system gets plenty of attention for its failures. It deserves a nod when it gets things right.