EMERYVILLE, Calif. -- Amid increasing attention to influenza-related illnesses throughout the healthcare community, government, and general public, California Emergency Physicians (CEP) re-launches this week its annual Flu Watch Center for the 2005-2006 flu season. Widespread discussions of topics such as the avian flu, potential quarantine, and vaccine shortages have fueled an increased demand for flu-related information. Offered as a public service by CEP, the "Flu Watch Center" (www.cep.com) provides public health officials, hospital administrators, healthcare providers, media sources, and the general public an additional resource to monitor flu trends in California.
In its second year, the "Flu Watch Center" has partnered with the California Department of Health Services (CDHS) through the California Influenza Surveillance Project (CISP). Like an early warning system, the "Flu Watch Center" will be an additional aide to anyone interested in tracking the incidence and nature of influenza-like illnesses in selected geographic areas of California on a weekly basis. This service will provide the earliest possible signal of a significant widespread increase in influenza-related illnesses within about 10 to 14 days of the patient/healthcare provider encounter, based on data collected on a large patient population. This will allow public health officials, schools, businesses, and healthcare providers to implement, in a timelier manner, plans to cope with a significantly larger number of sick patients, employees, or students similar to the 2003-2004 flu season.
To create the "Flu Watch Center," patient data for each emergency department is collected and analyzed through a proprietary data management warehousing system called MedAmerica Analysis and Reporting System (MARS). As the management services organization for CEP, MedAmerica developed the "Flu Watch Center" at the height of the 2004 flu season. MARS records such data as: number of ED visits, number of hospital admissions, patient satisfaction, demographics, and other emergency department performance indicators, which allow comparative analysis and benchmarking for CEP hospital clients. This information will be provided without any personal patient information to CDHS on a weekly basis for the remainder of the flu season. The current season's data is broken down by age and geographic distribution. Historical data over several prior flu seasons is also presented to give the viewer further insight into disease trends.
Flu activity is most commonly tracked during a 33-week span of time between October and May, when influenza and influenza-like illnesses are responsible for a significant percentage of patient visits. Says Prentice Tom, MD, CEP's chief medical officer, "Peak activity varies from year to year, but typically is experienced between December and March."
CEP's 1,100-plus providers treat almost 2.5 million patients annually. As the largest provider of emergency care in California, CEP emergency room visits capture a detailed picture of medical complaints on almost 50,000 patients per week who seek healthcare in over 50 emergency rooms in California. The Flu Watch Center reports the prevalence on a weekly basis of flu-related illnesses as a percentage of total emergency room visits; and the data reflects a diverse, state-wide population from the 50 communities and the multiple hospital clients served by CEP including district, county, independent, non profit, for-profit, and academic hospitals, as well as trauma centers. Moreover, the data represents a diverse geographic, economic, and demographic population of patients, including many who are indigent and underinsured. This data is distinctly different from other data collected by CDHS from statewide primary care offices and large managed care organizations, but taken together with these other sources provides a broader picture of influenza related illnesses in California.
As Tom explains, influenza-like illnesses, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), include the following symptoms: fever, headache, tiredness, cough, sore throat, nasal congestion, and body aches. "Thus, for CEP data reporting," he says "patients were considered to have an influenza-like illness when fever was present along with one or more of the following: upper respiratory infection, cough, sore throat, or nasal congestion."