The fight against flu – and the need for clear lines of communications between the NHS and the public – provides a case study for public health

The failure to implement an adequate flu vaccination programme has led to the highest increase in the number of flu-related deaths for twelve years. Recent figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that an ineffective vaccine combined with low immunisation rates across the UK resulted in the largest percentage increase since 1968. An increase of 28,189 deaths in 2015 took annual figures past the 500,000 mark – although many medical experts predict that flu is often under-reported and these figures could be even higher.

Who is most at risk?

While anyone can catch the influenza virus, its symptoms have a devastating effect on particular subgroups of the UK population. These include the over 65s; pregnant women; young children; diabetes sufferers; and those people with a weakened immune system or an established respiratory illness such as asthma. Despite large numbers of the population falling into these categories, the latest report from Public Health England shows that vaccination rates within these groups has decreased in the last twelve months.

2016 also saw the roll-out of a new pilot vaccination programme aimed specifically at primary school children (aged five to eleven) who are often greatly affected by the virus. However, immunisation rates in England (57.9 percent) were significantly lower than those in other countries within the UK – with Scotland and Northern Ireland achieving rates of 71.5 and 76.8 percent respectively. 

So what can be done to improve the communication between NHS organisations and citizens about the flu virus? What tools can medical professionals use to manage flu vaccination programmes and any severe outbreaks of the virus? 

A direct line 

Critical communications platforms are already in use by several organisations within the NHS. Hospitals use the technology to co-ordinate with staff and deploy resources in the event of an emergency, and ambulance services use it to communicate more effectively with first responders and residents during major incidents. So how can local NHS Trusts and GP practices use the technology in the fight against flu? 

Firstly, communication platforms can be used to send targeted notifications directly to individuals. These critical messages can be sent quickly and reliably via a number of different communication channels – including SMS, email, text-to-speech alerts, social media and push notifications. In fact, the most effective platforms have the capability to send out notifications via more than 100 communication paths and devices, enabling organisations to communicate with residents much more effectively than before. 

This would allow healthcare providers to communicate directly with vulnerable people and those with a high risk of contracting the virus in an attempt to limit its spread during the winter months. For instance, during flu season GP practices could send out targeted messages to diabetes sufferers and the elderly to remind them to book a flu vaccination and deliver updated information around flu symptoms and treatments. It could also be used by local clinics to send out appointment reminders to residents who are booked in to have a flu jab, as well as providing people with updates on the latest preventative measures to take. 

By moving away from the current blanket-approach to a much more targeted methodology, the technology enables healthcare providers to directly reach out to patients – even when they are outside of a medical facility – and provide them with useful health information tailored to their individual circumstances. 

Central to the success of critical communications platforms are two key functions. The first is the capability to deliver messages using a variety of different methods - known as multi-modal communications. The second is effective two-way communication, which is the ability for recipients to respond to emergency notifications quickly and easily, acknowledge receipt and confirm actions or declare status. 

Importance of multimodality 

No communications channel can ever be 100 percent reliable 100 percent of the time, so multimodality transforms the speed at which people receive the message. Multi-modality facilitates communication via more than 100 different communication devices and contact paths including smartphones, tannoy systems and digital signage to deliver a more effective and holistic communications strategy. 

Multimodality also enables multiple methods of delivering vital preventative information during widespread breakouts of the flu virus. For example, in London – where the numbers of children being vaccinated against flu are at their lowest in the UK – healthcare providers could use digital signage displays to make people aware of the free immunisation process and the location of local clinics offering these services.

Two-way or no-way

Just as multimodality ensures that it is easier to receive a message, two-way communications makes it simpler to confirm a response. In a critical emergency, every second counts, so organisations can use communications platforms to create and deliver bespoke templates that require simple one-button press responses. In doing so, the number of responses to critical notifications can increase significantly.

For instance, if there was a severe outbreak of the flu virus in a particular geographical area, GP surgeries could send out a critical notification asking local residents if they are feeling unwell and whether they require an appointment. Residents can then reply instantly, providing healthcare professionals with a clear overview of the scale of the issue and how best to deploy resources to prevent the virus from spreading further.

Combined, these two functions enable organisations to respond smarter and faster to those in need. In situations where multimodal communications and response templates are deployed together, response rates to incidents increase from around 20 percent of recipients to more than 90 percent. This increase in responses would mean that UK residents are better informed of the dangers of the flu virus, more aware of what preventative measures to take and able to inform medical professionals when they are in need of urgent assistance.

Emergency response

While most common strains of the flu virus are treatable with modern medicine, the virus continues to evolve and new deadlier strains are being discovered. In 2009, the UK found itself in the midst of a 'swine flu' pandemic – the antibiotic resistant H1N1 influenza virus – that affected hundreds of thousands of people across the country. In recent weeks, scientists have also discovered a new severe strain of H5N8 avian flu which is spreading across Eastern and Central Europe. 

 It is a case of when, not if, another flu outbreak occurs and, therefore, emergency services need to have the tools in place to respond quickly and provide effective treatment for patients. Critical communications platforms could be used by hospitals and first response teams to communicate with on-call staff and deploy medical resources to treat patients and quarantine the virus. Users could also harness the platform's geolocation data to assess the most affected areas and prioritise those patients with the most critical needs.

As a result, deaths from the flu virus would significantly decrease, pressure on the NHS and local GPs would be reduced, and vulnerable patients in need of urgent assistance would receive more efficient treatment. As the UK population continues to grow and the influenza virus continues to evolve, more and more people will find themselves suffering from the effects of the flu virus. For local healthcare providers, the NHS and even the government, having the technology available to instantly locate and communicate with citizens during a viral outbreak will ensure the lives of UK residents are better protected.

Nick Hawkins is managing director at Everbridge EMEA