Visiting physician's office after a flu patient raises risk of catching it, study finds

Patients who had an appointment at their physician's office after a flu patient had visited the same practice were 31.8 percent more likely to catch the illness than unexposed patients, according to research published in the August edition of Health Affairs.

The study, led by researchers at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis and Cambridge, Mass.-based Harvard University used all-payer insurance claims and EHR data from Athenahealth to identify patients who visited their primary care physician's office before and after a flu patient had visited the same office.

Exposed patients, or those who visited their physican's practice after a flu patient, were nearly 32 percent more likely to return to the office with the flu within two weeks, compared to unexposed patients, or those who had an appointment before a flu patient. 

Researchers did not find a similar association for exposure to noncontagious conditions such as urinary tract infection and back pain.

"It's a widely accepted fact that patients can acquire infections in hospital settings, but we show that infection transmission can happen when you visit your doctor's office too," said Hannah Neprash, PhD, study author and assistant professor at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health. "Our findings highlight the importance of infection control practices and continued access to telemedicine services, as healthcare begins to return to pre-pandemic patterns. 

"In person outpatient care for influenza may promote nontrivial transmission of these viruses. This may be true for other endemic respiratory illnesses too, including COVID-19, but more research is needed."

Researchers believe it's the first study to evaluate the link between influenza and a patient's visit timing among a national sample. 

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