As doctors, we know many diseases have seasons. We can expect influenza in winter months and gastrointestinal illnesses in the spring and summer months. While it may become almost mechanical treating the same disease over and over, it is wise to keep our minds open and focus on the individual patient. It is important to be prepared for clusters, but it is also necessary not to fall into the assumption that, just because a disease has certain symptoms, it is that same disease we always associate with that set of symptoms.

Below are some tips for handling disease clusters.

  • Be prepared. If you know a disease is currently circulating at a high rate in your community, make sure you have the tools to handle it. If it is influenza season, make sure you have enough influenza and/or rapid strep tests available in your office.
  • Make patient education readily available. Educated patients do better. Part of our job as doctors is teaching them. If there is a gastrointestinal virus going around, give them information with tips about handwashing, avoiding undercooked meat, and more to help stop the spread.
  • Educate your staff. Since the dawn of COVID-19, many of us have incorporated telemedicine into our practices. Let your staff know which patients need to be brought to the office for an in-person visit versus those who can be treated through a video visit.
  • Do community outreach. If there is a disease cluster at a local school, speak with the school nurse. Sometimes the media is looking for experts to interview during periods of high disease circulation. None of us have much extra time, but there are many ways we can get the word out. Many journalists do interviews via email or brief video calls. In the days of disinformation, it is important that doctors get their voices out there. It may cost a few minutes upfront, but it can save hours down the road when you are not trying to convince a patient why a particular piece of information they heard or read is wrong.
  • Protect your staff and yourself. We all know the havoc that is caused when one of our staff members is out sick. Not only does everyone have to pull extra weight, but we don’t want our coworkers to experience any ill that could have been potentially avoided. Put hand sanitizer around the office that is easily accessible to everyone and encourage mask-wearing as appropriate.
  • Don’t make assumptions. Not every sore throat is going to be strep throat. Sometimes it can be thyroiditis or another disease. Not everything that looks like rotavirus is rotavirus. It might be a bacterial infection that could benefit from antibiotics. We need to evaluate everyone regardless of what is happening around us. Yes, they may have the same illness that seemingly everyone else does. But, if we rush and make assumptions, we will miss the one that is something different.

We also need to be aware of what is going on in our community. Maybe that pneumonia we thought the patient had is actually Legionnaire’s disease they contracted from a senior center they spend time at. Knowing that this was occurring in our local area would raise our index of suspicion to help us make an accurate diagnosis. It is important to be aware of local diseases without falling into the assumption that everyone has the same disease.