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Viral discussion: Epidemics experts sound off on the future of infection control

Image of flu virus, which experts think will eventually lead to future epidemics
Is the next flu pandemic around the corner?

During the 1918 influenza pandemic, the average life expectancy in the U.S. dropped below 40 years old. Today, public health and medical professionals need to be actively preparing for the next great pandemic, according to leaders of the Massachusetts Medical Society, The New England Journal of Medicine and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who delivered the keynote address at a Boston-based meeting on April 27 called Epidemics Going Viral: Innovation vs. Nature. Here’s recap of what we heard from various panelists.

The five key drivers of epidemics are population growth/urbanization, travel, animals, environmental/climate changes and conflicts/natural disasters, according to Harvey Fineberg, MD, PhD, President of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and former president of the Institute of Medicine. When it comes to predicting and preventing the next epidemic, Fineberg believes that data from a social media platform like Twitter isn’t going to help identify the next big outbreak.

But John Brownstein, PhD, an epidemiologist and Chief Innovation Officer at Boston Children’s Hospital, disagreed with that idea.

“I believe it’s possible for Twitter to find the next microbe,” Brownstein said. “This information comes in real time and at global scale.” Attendees who were live tweeting with the hashtag #epidemicsgoviral were quick to highlight this difference of opinion.

Uber flu shot, “a cool millennial thing to do”

Anne Schuchat, MD, deputy director of the Centers of Disease Control, busted the myth that non-vaccination rates are rising. She explained that media stories about anti-vaccination supporters can make it seem as though vaccination rates are falling when they actually aren’t.

“Less than one percent of kids aren’t vaccinated in the U.S.,” Schuchat said.

But some vaccinations, like the annual flu shot, still have big gaps to close. Brownstein described how a partnership with Uber — dispatching flu vaccines and nurses to people’s homes — was able to influence people to get their first-ever flu shot.

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Startup uses Uber to get patients to their medical appointments

Uber medical transportation Circulation

Getting to the doctor will soon get easier for some struggling patients. Boston Children’s Hospital has joined forces with the ride-hailing service Uber to pilot a non-emergency medical transportation platform.

The online, HIPAA-compliant tool, called Circulation, connects with health care information systems, enabling hospitals to schedule Uber rides for patients. The pilot will serve Boston Children’s, Mercy Health System in Pennsylvania and Nemours Children’s Health System in Wilmington, Delaware.

A 2005 study estimated that 3.6 million people miss medical appointments because they don’t have access to transportation. While Medicare and Medicaid and other payers provide non-emergency transportation benefits, such as taxi vouchers, patients may be unaware of the programs or have trouble navigating reimbursement rules for the rides. Frequently, the taxi or car service arrives late or doesn’t show up at all.

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