11/22/2017 17:02 EST | Updated 11/22/2017 17:05 EST

Flu Costs Our Health-Care System More Than You Might Think

The results of this study are an eye-opener for those who believe influenza is not a costly infection.

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When people talk about the flu, usually it's a personal affair. They recount their experiences fighting off the illness, discuss the variety of symptoms suffered, and at times, reflect on the outcome, which may be dire. These stories demonstrate the toll this virus takes on the human body as well as the importance of prevention through hygiene and vaccination.

The virus also causes economic burdens. For most Canadians, this comes in the form of lost wages and productivity. But there are other costs most of us do not realize exist as a result of our universal health-care system. Yet, while we may be blissfully blind to these costs, public health officials and governments need to be kept up to date on just how much this virus takes out of the coffers.

For a few decades, numerous countries have made attempts to identify the overall cost of influenza on the health-care system. One of the most telling statistics is the cost of hospitalizations. In the United States, the number has been calculated to be $6 billion for just over 334,000 hospitalizations. This amounts to just under $18,000 per case.

As no such number has existed for Canada, only an estimate can be determined. Based on data from the World Bank, Canada spends on average 45-per-cent less than our American counterparts per individual. This can be used to calculate an estimate of approximately $10,000 per case. Yet estimates such as the one performed here are not always useful when deciding on how to allocate health dollars.

While we may be blissfully blind to these costs, public health officials and governments need to be kept up to date on just how much this virus takes out of the coffers.

To fill this gap, a massive Canadian collaboration sought out to find just how much we spend on the flu. Last week, they revealed their results, although some may not wish to see them. Based on the assessments, Canada is spending far more money than may be believed due to this virus. The results reveal we all need to do our part to minimize the impact of influenza, especially on those who are most at risk.

The study brought together more than three dozen researchers from all over the country and several different health networks participated. Together, they explored a massive database of hospital information known as the Serious Outcomes Surveillance Network, or SOS for short. This network looked at 27 hospitals across six provinces: Alberta, British Columbia, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Quebec.

The researchers attempted to pull out as much useful data as they could, in the hopes of coming to an accurate number. The collection included several useful pieces of information such as the types of care given during hospitalization and the length of stay. The team also included health-care expenditures due to resources needed before hospitalization as well as afterwards to get a clearer picture of the cost from the beginning of the infection to the return to proper health.


By the time the information was collected, the team had close to 3,000 records, representing about a quarter of the estimated 12,000 influenza hospitalizations occurring each year. This was more than enough data to make an accurate calculation of the cost. But as the number-crunching progressed, a few surprises came to light.

The first was the average length of stay for an influenza patient. For decades, the estimate was considered to be around five days. Yet in this study, the average was almost 11 days. This was concerning in terms of cost, as a doubling of stay would no doubt lead to an increase in cost.

The second unexpected piece of data came in the form of the number of people suffering from other chronic diseases, officially known called co-morbidities. They tend to require more care and as a result lead to higher costs for the healthcare system. The authors expected this number to be somewhere between 50 and 70 per cent, yet the actual number calculated was just over 90, This meant almost every case of hospitalization was more complicated and as a result, more costly.

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Not surprisingly, the actual cost of influenza hospitalizations ended up being much higher than the $10,000 estimate. On average, each case was costing the health-care system $14,612 per person. But in some areas of the country, that number was significantly higher, with some provinces expending $20,000 per case. This unexpected amount revealed just how costly influenza can be for certain regions of the country.

The results of this study are an eye-opener for those who believe influenza is not a costly infection. The data clearly shows we need to focus on minimizing influenza spread, particularly to those who are most vulnerable such as the extremely old, the extremely young, and individuals with chronic disease. As for how to accomplish this, the options are, unlike the calculations performed in this study, relatively straightforward and simple to follow.

Adhere to good hygiene practices such as proper hand-washing and hand sanitizer use, stay away from those who are sick, and if you happen to be sick, stay home. Another excellent option is to seek out the flu vaccine. Granted, healthy individuals may not believe this option is needed for their own health. But if someone who is vulnerable happens to be in that social circle, the vaccine will offer added protection.

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