Electronic Health Records: A Rising Star in the Flu Prevention Arsenal

Jan 24, 2013, 10:58 AM

Add electronic health records to the critical weapons health professionals have against the flu, as 48 states currently deal with widespread flu activity and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports at least 30 pediatric deaths so far. At least half of those children had not received a flu shot, according to CDC Director Thomas Frieden.

A CDC report from September 2012 found that about 128 million people, or about 42 percent of the U.S. population, got the flu shot during the 2011-2012 season, which started later and proved milder than the one we’re in now. That number has been holding steady for several years, but is below the CDC’s goal of 80 percent of the U.S. population receiving a flu shot.

Kaiser Permanente in Northern California, however, has seen a 6 percent increase in its two-million plus members getting the 2012-2013 flu shot over previous years, for which it gives credit to HealthConnect, the largest civilian health record data base in the United States. Randy Bergen, MD, the vaccine lead at Kaiser in Northern California, says the system lets Kaiser Staff “proactively reach out to all its members and even identify those at greatest risk from contracting the flu [which includes children, the elderly and people with chronic diseases] to give them an extra nudge.”

Kaiser sent out postcards and emails announcing its flu clinics back in September, and during flu season a health visit automatically reveals a patient’s flu shot status. Haven’t had the shot? Then patients are offered a shot on the spot if it’s available, or referred to the nearest Kaiser flu clinic if it’s not. And Kaiser made accessing a shot even simpler this year by offering drive-through clinics and providing flu shots on many of its mobile health vans.

More health practices could follow Kaiser Permanente’s plan next year. The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology reported in late December that physician adoption of electronic health record and other computerized tools continues to rise—from 48 percent in 2009 to 72 percent in 2012. Not all systems, of course, will have the capability to reach out to patients as Kaiser does, but many connected health practices should be able to at least include a prompt to ask about a patient’s flu shot status during flu season office visits.

While flu activity in some states is expected to begin winding down soon, Western states may just now be heading toward their peak, according to the CDC. In a briefing with reporters last week, U.S. Food and Drug Administration head Margaret Hamburg, MD, said there were spot shortages of the vaccine around the country. Hamburg advises people looking for the shot to use the Flu Vaccine Finder, a public/private partnership, to find nearby clinics, as well as to call ahead to make sure a shot is available.

Bonus Link: Read a NewPublicHealth interview from the recent Public Health Law Research meeting on national efforts aimed at getting more health workers to get a flu shot.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.