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As flu season hits hard, how do your staff report they will be out?

By Chris Harrop
January 18, 2018
Body of Knowledge Domain(s): Human Resource Management

An active influenza season is under way across the country, with near-epidemic levels largely attributed to particularly tough strains of influenza resulting in higher severity illness that are pushing hospitalizations up more so than recent years.

Physician practice employees are no exception. Even if you have a policy mandating flu shots for staff (as more than half of practices do, according to an August 2017 MGMA Stat poll), the strains of influenza thus far in the 2017-18 flu season have proven resistant to this year’s vaccines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention find that flue-related illnesses cost $10.4 billion annually in direct medical expenses, as well as $16.3 billion in lost earnings.

So how should practice leaders account for employees when the flu strikes?

A Jan. 16 MGMA Stat poll asked practice leaders how their employees notify the practice that they will be not be reporting for work. Out of 1,254 respondents, 14% said text message, 27% said phone call, 1% said email, while 55% said it was some combination of those three. Another 2% responded "other."

For the majority who said a combination of methods was allowed, 61% said texting and calling, 32% said all three methods were allowed, 5% said calling and email and 1% said text and email, with another 1% responding "other."

The main point of contact for the practice employee when they say they will not report usually is their supervisor, according to:

•    64% of respondents who allow text notifications
•    89% of respondents who say employees must call in
•    Just over two-thirds (67%) of respondents who allow email notifications

Multiple respondents who responded "other" noted that a phone call is still the preferred method for employees to notify the practice they will be out. “I want to hear directly from the employee, whether by voicemail or by conversation,” one respondent wrote. It’s “too easy to email or text a call-out. Another respondent reported that employees are asked to leave a message after calling a central phone number, and that message is emailed to the entire team.

The shift from a phone call to other means of notification may represent a generational shift among healthcare workers. As Rune Vejby outlined in his 2015 book, Texting in Sick: How Smartphones, Texting, and Social Media Are Changing Our Relationships, the majority of young Americans see texting as a primary method of communication.

But that tendency to text does not always translate well into a professional setting. Vejby notes that in a survey commissioned by British medicine maker Covonia, “72% of managers feel texting or emailing in sick is a ‘cop out’” for employees who would rather avoid a potentially difficult conversation.

How to handle this flu season

The CDC has issued numerous recommendations for the 2017-18 flu season, including:

  • Do not use the nasal spray flu vaccine, also known as live attenuated influenza vaccine (LAIV); instead, use the injectable flu shot (also known as inactivated influenza vaccine, or IIV) or the recombinant influenza vaccine (RIV).
  • Any “licensed, recommended and age-appropriate” vaccine is acceptable for pregnant women.
  • A new quadrivalent — protecting against four different viruses, two influenza A and two influenza B — recombinant flu vaccine (“Flublok Quadrivalent” RIV) is available, as opposed to the trivalent version available last flu season. Some flu shots available this year still only protect against three flu viruses.

Additional resources

Chris Harrop, senior editorial manager, Publications, MGMA

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