The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing health care providers to fundamentally reevaluate operational best practices and the future of the sector more broadly. Like individuals across the globe, health care systems are adapting to a new normal whereby the answers to how and where care is provided remain in flux.
As countries begin to ease lockdown measures, governments and health care professionals are working together closely to protect high-risk populations while expanding testing and treatment capacity. This approach has produced interesting results, with fatality rates lowering but case counts rising. Case trends in the US illustrate this shift. For instance, the median age of new COVID-19 cases in Florida fell from 65 in March to 35 this month, indicating that younger, less vulnerable cohorts of the public are driving this statistical mystery. Health care systems are therefore tasked with the burden of swiftly adapting to seismic shifts in how the disease spreads while attuning their procedural practices to challenges as they arise. Transformational shifts are already evident in the design of health care facilities, the training of health care workers, and inventory management of personal protective equipment (PPE). Pandemic-induced transformation is not exclusive to health care – education, geopolitics, and supply chain management are equally impacted.
What will health care look like in the post-coronavirus era? Here’s what to expect:
First, virtual care through telehealth and telemedicine will play a central role in global health care delivery. Health care systems are forced to navigate the rapid shift to virtual care through a plethora of remote health care technologies. Data reveals the magnitude of this shift: Before the pandemic, less than 1 percent of outpatient care was delivered via telemedicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. Today, that number has skyrocketed to 83 percent of total outpatient care. This is coupled with the fact that 50 to 70 percent of visits to the doctor’s office can be replaced with virtual care, particularly for routine monitoring and check ups. Health care providers will have a hard time putting that genie back in the bottle in the post-coronavirus era.
The pace and magnitude of this shift hinges on two factors: First, consumer adoption driven by how much trust virtual care can build among patients and second is the degree to which technological advancements – like AI-based diagnostics and cloud-based medical record storage – can facilitate seamless communication between patients and providers. Beyond routine checkups, health care providers are now testing the efficacy of virtual intensive care units. At Mercy Virtual in Pennsylvania, intubated patients receive care at home with a nurse and are remotely monitored by critical care specialists. At a time where physically coming into the hospital poses an unnecessary risk – especially to vulnerable patients – telemedicine plays an indispensable role in containing the spread of the virus without compromising public health. In the short to medium term, virtual care provides health care systems with a cushion to repatriate staff needed to deliver elective procedures after being initially overwhelmed with the virus outbreak. While riddled with diagnostic and therapeutic limitations, telehealth is also faced with the challenge of inclusive health care delivery – the fact that a quarter of adults don’t have broadband internet service at home doesn’t really help. It is imperative that the shift to virtual care creates and sustains inclusive health care delivery that eliminates – rather than exacerbates – the harmful impacts of class stratification.
Second, expect to see a much larger state-driven emphasis on the social determinants of health. Put simply, social determinants of health are conditions in the environments in which people are born that impact health outcomes. These include education, employment, societal awareness, and physical living conditions. Governments will place a greater emphasis on decreasing community-based vulnerabilities that place lower socio-economic segments of the population at a disproportionate disadvantage. Policies are expected to address, for instance, high-density housing with scarce ventilation and poor sanitation. Without regulatory support and innovative policy solutions, low-income communities will remain just as vulnerable to future outbreaks.
Third, health care systems will experience higher labor and inventory costs that challenge profit margins. An uptick in labor costs will be driven primarily by health care worker shortages in medical disciplines impacted by the shift to virtual care and task-shifting models. Additionally, coronavirus-induced shortages of PPE, ventilators and drugs reveal the exigent need for greater supply chain resiliency and diversification. The operational costs of maintaining larger stockpiles will challenge cost-driven lean manufacturing processes and force dynamic inventory management.
Estimates point to the fact that the health care response to COVID-19 will remain a top policy priority for the next 18-24 months. The pandemic is generating fundamental shifts across the health care continuum. At the intersection of policy and patient care, practitioners are uniquely positioned to create a positive and lasting impact on the sector at large, thereby guiding health care delivery to a brighter, more inclusive future.
Collaboration between policy makers and practitioners is imperative in policy formulation and subsequent implementation. The success of these shifts will be determined by the sector’s ability to adapt to a new normal by identifying challenges, creating innovative solutions, and swiftly seizing emerging opportunities.