With hospitals working overtime in flu season, patients seek creative ways to see doctors

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With flu cases spiking, doctors opting to see patients through 'telemedicine' (KTRK)

According to the Texas Department of Health, 1,155 people, including four pediatric patients, have died from flu complications in the state since last October through the first week of January.

The flu season runs from October to October, and last year, TDH listed 9,553 flu-related deaths.

Lara Anton, with the state health department, said the data is based on death certificates. And because of reporting, the numbers are typically two months behind.

This year, every state in the nation is going through widespread flu outbreaks. The Houston-area now has seven deaths linked to complications from influenza. The Centers for Disease Control said today that it considers all the flu deaths nationally to be under-reported.

Two cases were announced today by the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office as possibly linked to the flu. Two male inmates became sick while in the county jail. According to a statement by MCSO, both inmates had underlying health conditions.

READ MORE: 2 inmates die from flu in Montgomery County, officials say

The region's healthcare providers are inundated with patients. At Kelsey Seybold, telemedicine is providing a way around the wait.

Kelsey Seybold launched video conferencing between patient and doctor last year. It's done by appointment, with the patient in front of their computer camera and the physician in an office. The patient describes symptoms. In this case, someone complaining of flu symptoms also says "ahhh," and has a visual throat exam.

Dr Donnie Aga has been involved with the program since it was launched. "This flu season, we've probably tripled the number of telemedicine cases," he said. "It keeps the doctors from being infected. Patients describe their symptoms and we make an assessment." An online exam, which consists of a digital questionnaire is also available. A doctor's response usually takes 10 minutes. A prescription is dispensed to a pharmacy.

The telemedicine program is reserved for patients enrolled in Kelsey Seybold's insurance plans.

Emergency rooms are full of sick people seeking flu treatment, and the waiting time to get care can take hours. Instead, freestanding clinics are seeing a lot of patients.

At Memorial Hermann Urgent Care Center in Telfair, extra shipments of disinfectant have been required, to clean exam rooms after flu patients have been examined.

Dr. Eugenia Bacani, with Memorial Hermann Medical Group, has been a physician for 30 years.

"This is the busiest flu season I've ever seen. It's quite a jump from previous years," Bacani said.

Despite the volume of patients, the waiting time to see a doctor is far less than a traditional hospital. And because it's not an emergency care center, the cost is less. A patient with serious complications can be transferred to a hospital, if necessary.

In contrast to the last large flu outbreak three years ago, anti-viral medication, such as Tamiflu, is well-stocked at area pharmacies. So is flu vaccine. Despite the CDC's opinion that this year's vaccine is not entirely effective against the virulent strain of flu detected this year, Kroger pharmacist Joey Garza advises customers to get it.

"It's your best bet at being protected," he said. "Even if it's not the same strains in the shot, you'll still have some effectiveness."

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