He lowered himself next to a tall office building. He wrote "Where Am I?" on a placard and held it up for the people inside the building windows to see. Those people responded with their own placard that said "You Are in a Balloon 100 Feet Up in the Air." That answer was however enough for the balloonist to know that he was at the Microsoft headquarters in the Seattle suburb of Redmond. For going by its help feature in its products only Microsoft could provide an answer that was completely correct and yet so irrelevant and useless.
How's this related to swine flu? About two weeks ago I briefly came down with the sniffles and a mild fever that lasted less than a day. Then over this Labor Day weekend we drove to Pittsburgh where Anita's nephew had similar symptoms. We isolated the affected person (me and our nephew) and considered the obvious question of whether to seek testing, and if yes, where.
Testing would help the authorities to compile statistics and monitor the spread of the disease. Patients testing positive would know what to watch out for and be extra careful about exposing others. Recovered patients presumably acquire immunity, and needn't worry about subsequent exposure, or getting inoculated when the swine flu vaccine becomes available.
On the other hand, patients arriving in large numbers in medical facilities could put providers and other patients at risk, and strain scarce resources. Also, uninfected patients can acquire the H1N1 virus from others in the very clinic that they visit.
Weighing these pros and cons we looked at the CDC and other official websites for guidance. Despite all the other information crammed in there, we found nothing addressing these obvious questions. Countless other patients and American families may be similarly confused and frustrated.
The closest answer I got after clicking through links and menus was an indirect one, under "Home Care Guidance: Physician Directions to Patient / Parent." It said that you should see a doctor or seek medical help if you develop certain serious symptoms, presumably meaning that you shouldn't if these don't occur. It needs to be a lot more explicit and easy to find.
The new health care and CDC leadership under the Obama administration has been in place for quite some time, with Director Thomas Friedan confirmed in May 2009. They should have personally scrutinized their agency's website and confirmed there are no glaring omissions. They don't seem to have adequately done so, but this is fixable. Having worked in government these are the obvious added steps I would take in regard to swine flu were I directing CDC or the HHS in regard to the flu:
1) Prominently feature in the Frequently Questions (FAQs) and other parts of their website, as well as in briefs to the media
- Advice to persons with typical symptoms and parents on whether and when to get tested for swine flu, and when not to
- Similar advice on when to seek medical help or visit a doctor, and when to hold off out of concerns of spreading or contracting infection
- Some information about the cost of testing, the best places to go to (doctor's office, clinic or hospital emergency room?) and the reliability of the tests. Add more "layman" information about the benefits - and the downside or risks - of anti-viral treatments like Tamiflu and Relenza.
3) Engage and coordinate efforts with large providers and test labs to expand capabilities to handle swine flu patients. The CDC can also issue standard guidelines and practices (e.g., separate windows and rapid turnover waiting areas for flu patients in emergency rooms with proper signage, to limit cross-infections) that help providers and patients alike. The CDC can even use its power to disseminate information to have "suggested prices" for testing and treatment. Coupled with inviting providers to include their prices in the links on the CDC website as at (2) above, this will encourage lower prices.
4) Orchestrate a system to enable healthy family members to get sterile vials or containers from labs, collect patients' samples like nasal swabs, and submit these for testing. This way patients being tested get to stay at home and again limits inconvenience and the spread of infection.
5) Encourage or help set up a system of home visits to patients by health workers. Such workers should have either already contracted and recovered from H1N1 infections, or have been vaccinated after this treatment becomes available, so that they are immune.
Similar steps can be taken to disseminate detailed information about the swine flu vaccine which is expected to be widely available very soon. The CDC and the HHS are large organization with multiple responsibilities. So ideas like these may not have been considered. I hope they are responsive once they see them. Since H1N1 flu has now spread worldwide, other countries can also adopt similar practices.