Corrections & Clarifications: An earlier version of this story overstated the number of people who own Kinsa thermometers. It is more than 1 million.
Can anything help you keep safe from the flu?
As one of the worst influenza outbreaks on record sweeps across America, that’s a question hundreds of scientists, inventors and health officials are working hard to answer.
For a start, flu experts recommend getting a vaccine, which reduces the chance of getting the flu by about one-third, though it's just 25% effective against the worst strain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The good news? There are a handful of high-tech flu-fighters worth checking out now, whether you're suffering or eager to prevent the onslaught.
Doctors on call
Depending on where you live, a few taps of the Heal app on your mobile device (iOS, Android) or on the Heal website can summon a doctor to your house or office in as little as two hours, 365 days a year.
Download the app, then type in a few details such as your address and the reason for the visit. Add your credit card and a request for a family doctor or pediatrician. Then wait for them to show up. The service is covered by most insurance, the doctors spend an unhurried 30 minutes minimum with you, and no visit costs more than $99.
I’ve used Heal a handful of times since it first launched in 2015, including last week, because somehow I forgot to get a flu shot this year. But the last thing I wanted to do is go to a doctor’s office or urgent care — packed with sick people — and potentially get exposed to the flu.
“This flu season is the worst that I’ve seen,” said Heal's Dr. Andrew Oliver, who came to deliver my shot with a medical assistant. (Cost: $30 or covered by insurance.)
Heal is available in five major metro areas, including Washington, D.C./Northern Virginia, Los Angeles and San Francisco/Silicon Valley (including Oakland, where I live). The company says it's working to expand to Chicago, Seattle, Baltimore, Atlanta and Las Vegas, among other cities, within the next year to 18 months.
Office visits on demand
Think of Zocdoc (iOS, Android) like the OpenTable of booking same-day doctor appointments. The service shows you in-network doctors with openings near you and lets you book appointments within the app. You can download the app or use the website, answer a few questions about what kind of doctor you’re looking for, and the date that you want to make the appointment (like today).
The app prompts you to scan your insurance card, if applicable, and then shows you options of appointments near you. It’s quick, easy and when I've used it, the app lands me with a better doctor than a Yelp recommendation. It’s currently available in about 30 states and the District of Columbia.
On demand virtual visits
Another option is a virtual visit through an app or website such as Doctor on Demand, which charges $75 for a 15-minute consultation, or less through a variety of insurance providers. There are a whole host of these kinds of services available now, and they all work similarly: Download the app or sign up online, fill out a questionnaire and request a doctor phone call or video chat within the hour. All of the apps connect you with U.S. board-certified physicians. The chats can last as little as 10 minutes or as long as 30. In some apps, you can upload or connect photos of a problem (like a rash), or copies of lab results.
I’ve used Doctor on Demand a few times, mainly to allay my fears after my daughter broke her nose, got a concussion and had the Norovirus. Each time, the pediatricians were fantastic, telling us what to watch for, as well as when/if to call 911. They even followed up and checked in on us the next day.
If you don't like that app, there are other options in this niche. Amwell, which charges $59 for a 10-minute urgent-care-type phone or video consultation with a doctor. Teladoc, an early pioneer in the field, costs about $50 per consultation. MDLive teamed up with Walgreens for video or phone consultations — also at a cost of around $59. And HealthTap lets people ask medical questions on its website or video chat with doctors for around $99 a month.
One of the best health gadgets I’ve reviewed is the new $20 Kinsa QuickCare wireless smart thermometer. It connects via Bluetooth to the free Kinsa app (iOS, Android) and lets you takes a quick temperature and record symptoms. The app keeps track of the readings over time. Within the app, you can also record medication, get dosage guidance, set reminders, keep each family member’s profile, get personalized guidance and even see which illnesses are circulating nearby for a better idea of what bugs are going around.
According to the company, more than 1 million people now own a Kinsa-connected thermometer, which allows Kinsa Health to collect about 30,000 readings a day. Kinsa has used that anonymous data to spot fever and flu symptom spikes in real time — and create a map to see where influenza-like illness is hitting hardest right now. In mid- February, according to Kinsa data, the sickest metro area was Atlanta, and the biggest weekly increases were in Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland.
You can turn off location sharing within the Kinsa app or use the thermometer without the app.
There are also anti-microbial phone cases, UV light sanitizers, personal air filters and a host of other gadgets that promise to help keep the flu at bay. I can't vouch for these.
One of my other favorites doesn't come with batteries or apps, though. It’s a little slip-on sleeve cover called a Sneeve. You know how we teach our kids to cough and sneeze into their elbow-pits? The Sneeve covers that area with a clingy, absorbant, disposable slip-on to help catch the yucky stuff. The cost for this one is $10 for a pack of seven.
Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech contributor and host of USA TODAY's digital video show TECH NOW. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JenniferJolly.