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Expected record flu season could be financial windfall for hospitals

In the last week of December, an average of 6.9% of patient visits were due to the flu or flu-like illnesses, up from previous years.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

Nobody wants to come down with influenza. But if the current trend is any indication, a lot of people will be getting the flu in 2020, and this could be a financial boon for hospitals that are taking in an influx of patients, according to an analysis firm.

On the flip side of that is the health insurance industry, which has to pick up the tab and thus is likely dreading a flu-heavy winter season.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics, patients presenting to their doctors with flu-like symptoms are already on the upswing, with a spike seen in late 2019. In the last week of December, an average of 6.9% of patient visits were due to the flu or flu-like illnesses. That's a worse-than-average figure, and an uptick from the 5.1% of such visits recorded just a week prior.

Data examined by Evercore ISI analysts already show higher-than-average flu cases at major hospital systems such as HCA Healthcare, Community Health Systems, Universal Health Services and Tenet Healthcare Corp.

Perhaps luckily for insurers, CDC figures show a 40% chance of flu activity already having peaked in late December. Insurers -- and patients -- probably aren't out of the woods yet, though: There's a 30% chance of flu season peaking this month, and a 25% chance of it peaking in February, according to the federal agency's flu forecasting tool.

WHAT'S THE IMPACT

Regardless of when the flu season actually peaks, it's turning out to be one of the worst in decades, according to CNN.

Roughly 2,900 Americans are estimated to have died so far, about 800 more than had been estimated. That translates into a flu season that's on pace to be worse than the 2017-2018 season, which in itself was the worst in four decades.

In total, the CDC estimates there have been 6.4 million flu cases and 55,000 hospitalizations so far this winter. Twenty-seven children have died, likely attributable to the prevalence of influenza B, a more stable strain to which children are particularly susceptible. That's the highest number of child deaths since the CDC started tracking those statistics 17 years ago.

THE LARGER TREND

In October, UnitedHealthcare launched an app that enables its members access to on-demand virtual doctor visits on their smartphones, computers and other devices.

The app, which will over time replace the healthcare provider's Health4Me app, connects patients with doctors 24 hours a day for digital visits to diagnose non-emergency medical conditions -- such as the flu. Physicians can also prescribe medications and send prescriptions to local pharmacies for pickup through the digital visits, which typically take 20 minutes for non-emergencies.
 

Twitter: @JELagasse

Email the writer: jeff.lagasse@himssmedia.com