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H1N1 Self-Assessment Designed to Guide Patients, Alleviate Stress on System

Ben Cole, for HealthLeaders Media, October 19, 2009

With cases (and fear) of H1N1 spreading across the country, the pandemic has the potential to overburden already stressed emergency rooms and doctors offices, but an interactive Web site is designed to advise patients based on the severity of their symptoms.

Using an assessment tool licensed by Emory University, Microsoft's H1N1 Response Center aims to help consumers' determine whether or not their symptoms are consistent with the H1N1 virus and if they should seek medical help.

The H1N1 Response Center asks a series of questions to help determine the severity of the case. The individual answering the questionnaire must disclose his or her age, gender, and zip code, and answer questions relating to how long they have felt like they might have the flu.

"The tool asks a series of questions, based on who you are: male/female, what age you are—there is all different branching logic that takes place in order for us to come up with the best assessment of how we believe we should guide you," says David Cerino, general manager of Microsoft Health Solutions Group.

The site creates an "interactive experience that is more convenient for the consumer, while at the same time being overall better for public health in terms of people not going to emergency rooms," Cerino added.

Based on how the individual answers each question, the H1N1 Response Center will format an individualized response. If the symptoms are severe, then the Web site suggests you see a doctor immediately. If the answers are less severe, the site suggests visiting a walk-in clinic, or even simply staying in bed, taking fever medicine, and drinking plenty of fluids.

The self assessment licensed from Emory University is based on "Strategy for Off-site Rapid Triage.' SORT reflects current public health and clinical science, vetted by a national network of experts from public health, clinical medicine, health education, and infectious disease.

The self-assessment tool allows patients and their families to enter specific information and be given back—in very clear, understandable terms—advice representing the best available clinical and public health science on what to do, says Arthur Kellermann, MD, professor of emergency medicine and an associate dean at Emory School of Medicine.

"It's a major tool to help reduce surge on the system in a safe and proven manner, but it's just as importantly a way to pull the right people into the healthcare system so they are not discouraged by long lines or fear that they won't ever get in to see somebody," Kellermann says. "It saves people money, discomfort, and the hazard of long, unnecessary trip to the emergency room."

Kellermann notes that the H1N1 pandemic is the first true pandemic the United States has faced in 40 years, and it has the potential to sicken tens of millions of people. The challenge, he says, is that with the U.S. healthcare system already facing a shortage a primary care doctors and overcrowded emergency rooms, it simply cannot sustain "tens of millions of people barreling into the nearest doctor's office or nearest ER as soon as they get flu symptoms."

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