There have been warnings all around Australia of the imminent influenza season, however it appears that the season has started earlier than usual. With a growing number of flu fatalities every day, there are constant calls for increased vaccinations.

But for those who still find themselves suffering from flu like symptoms, it’s essential that they get diagnosed, not only for their own benefit but for the benefit of the community.

At St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne rapid flu testing has made a vast difference in how emergency departments handle the influx of patients that come during the flu season.

“Our new rapid flu analyser is a molecular diagnostic tool that we use here at St Vincent’s for diagnosis of infectious diseases,” explains Dr Darren Jardine, Manager of Microbiology at St Vincent’s.

“We predominantly use it for rapid flu testing, norovirus, and a lot of resistant bugs that are out there. It’s very important to ensure we are effectively containing any infections.”

This new technology has helped decrease the pressure put on the emergency department. Prior to its installation testing took too long – anywhere from 7-8 hours before a diagnosis. Now, this rapid flu testing can be done in under an hour.

“Each flu season can be quite unpredictable. We need to be prepared to make sure that we’re able to rapidly process patients in the emergency department,” says Dr Jonty Karro, Deputy Director of the Emergency Department.

One of the challenges is that a patient who potentially has the flu cannot be admitted or discharged until there is a diagnosis. There is also a level of quarantine around them as the flu is highly contagious and there are other vulnerable patients nearby. This often leads to a bed shortage.

“It’s not uncommon during influenza season for us to suffer a bed crisis. Beds are in demand during the flu season, and we need to optimise our usage of that very scarce resource,” says Dr Karro.

Investment in pathology technology has supported the emergency department in becoming more efficient in managing their patients.

“We were fortunate enough to be given funding through the Department of Health and Human Services, and the lab suggested that this is the technology that we should invest in to ensure that our rapid flu testing is improved and enhanced for our patients,” says Jacqui Bilo, General Manager, Medical Services & Emergency.

“We’re now able to perform up to 100 tests per day. Prior to that we were only able to respond to about 30, which is quite a significant improvement for us,” says Ms Bilo.

Now, it’s expected that rapid flu testing will ease the burden experienced in previous flu seasons with high prevalence and fatalities.

“A couple of years ago, we had a particularly bad flu season here in Victoria, during which we found that we just weren’t able to maintain the service that was required by the hospital,” says Dr Jardine.

“Having our new rapid flu analyser has been a game changer for us in the emergency department. We can rapidly know whether patients do or don’t have influenza,” says Dr Karro.