Laboratory testing for the flu has traditionally taken so long to yield results that most people recovered before finding out if they actually had the virus.
But about half a dozen Chicago-area hospitals can now diagnose influenza in just more than an hour through a federally approved machine that has been working overtime during what is shaping up as a horrendous season for the flu.
"If you don't have this test, then you're just guessing what the best thing to do could be," said Paul Schreckenberger, Loyola University Health System's authority on the FilmArray Respiratory Panel.
A faster and more accurate diagnosis can lead to more effective treatment.
"It is important for the physician to know what they're dealing with," Schreckenberger said. "They can't just look at the patient or read their symptoms."
The screening device — the second of its type to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — tests a nasal sample for 17 types of viruses and three kinds of bacteria. Among them are key indicators of the flu that on Friday was classified as an epidemic by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The automated machine speeds up a diagnostic process that could otherwise take up to a week under different methods. Most hospitals send patient samples to commercial laboratories, where technicians either grow the virus or check for it using their own technology.
In labs without FilmArray, it could be a few days before technicians observe viral growth in test tubes.
"It didn't really lend itself to early diagnosis," said Dr. Xiaotian Zheng, who works with FilmArray at Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago. "Physicians had to make a decision."
"It's not only time-consuming but labor-intensive," he added.
FilmArray creates millions of copies of RNA strands of influenza in an hour and five minutes. When all is said and done, Loyola says its technicians spend two minutes dealing with the machine.
The Maywood-based health system said it administered nearly 2,500 FilmArray tests in 2012.
Other hospitals that have bought their own panels within the past few years include the University of Chicago Medical Center, Mount Sinai Medical Center and La Rabida Children's Hospital. The technology also can be found at several Chicago-area locations operated by Hammond-based Alverno Clinical Laboratories.
This flu season's early and active start has increased demand, said Sharon Lang, sales manager for BioFire Diagnostics' Great Lakes region. She said she has handled 40 inquiries since the beginning of December.
Local doctors said the device's only drawback is its $36,000 cost. The individual tests cost hospitals more than $100 each.
Many hospitals use less expensive rapid influenza diagnostic tests that cost about $10 per use, but those tests are looked at with skepticism by some in the medical community.
Loyola researchers have found the rapid flu tests, some of which generate results in less than 15 minutes, detect the virus about half of the time.
"You get what you pay for," Schreckenberger said.
Still, FilmArray's necessity is up for debate. Some health officials believe a quick diagnosis is only essential for patients with underlying illness that could be deadly when coupled with influenza.
For others, "they don't really need to know that they have the flu because you treat the flu like any respiratory illness," said Dr. Julie Morita, the medical director of the Chicago Department of Public Health.
An incompetent diagnosis could lead to a patient being prescribed antibiotics, which do nothing to combat viruses. In some cases, the wrong prescription could worsen whatever medical conditions the patient already has.
"You don't want to blanketly give Tamiflu to everyone," Lang said, referring to the antiviral drug that deals with influenza.Copyright © 2015, RedEye