No two pandemics are alike, yet some lessons can be drawn from global experiences. Health care leaders who prioritize innovation, consumer needs and accelerated transformation will emerge from this experience more prepared than ever for success.
Studies demonstrate how prolonged stress during the pandemic has had detrimental repercussions for physical health, with many Americans reporting either weight gain or loss and changes to sleep and alcohol usage patterns as direct consequences of prolonged stress.
What we learned
Health care systems (HCSs) have learned some hard lessons during the COVID-19 pandemic. For some HCSs, this has served as an accelerant of change – forcing transformational measures faster than would otherwise be implemented under non-crisis conditions.
CMS in the US relaxed regulations that limited telehealth access during the pandemic, showing how rapid increases in patient capacity and new digital services could be offered quickly despite limited staff resources. This experience served as a clear indication that healthcare must permanently remove regulatory barriers to telehealth access.
Other countries bolstered interoperability among their national health systems and hospitals through public-private partnerships and creating multidisciplinary care teams for patients with overlapping conditions. This approach can improve outcomes while reducing costs; furthermore, this strategy could prevent staff shortages when peak demand returns; however it must be noted that over reinforcing interoperability during non-crisis periods could lead to disjointed care similar to what we saw during pandemic.
What we can do
Healthcare systems must meet consumers in both physical and virtual settings where they are, providing post-pandemic care that fits each person’s individual circumstances. Grief and uncertainty will drive consumer behaviors differently; as such, healthcare systems need to be flexible and responsive.
Future policies must address mental health concerns more comprehensively and ensure workers can find safe and sustaining jobs. Thanks to COVID-19, we now know the long-term health effects associated with stress, burnout and unsafe working conditions are serious – it has an adverse effect on people’s wellbeing.
Pandemic has also shown us that we must shift away from chronic underinvestment in public health emergency response, including stronger laboratory networks, greater emphasis on training the public health workforce and improved information management systems – to better prepare ourselves for next time around. In addition, colonial-era trends that see global health experts and institutions from high-income countries (HICs) dominating this field must be reversed in order to effectively prepare the global community.
What we can’t do
The COVID-19 Pandemic exposed many weaknesses in our healthcare systems. For example, myths, falsehoods and flawed assumptions complicated response efforts while the absence of powerful data collection and analysis tools was an additional hurdle to success.
People living within communities during the pandemic realized the value of human connection. Studies have demonstrated how loneliness suppresses immunity and can even lead to some diseases.
Frontline workers are the foundation of any healthcare system. They have consistently shown extraordinary dedication, whether that meant caring for patients directly, providing necessary vaccinations or keeping regular healthcare services operating during a pandemic outbreak.
They deserve our profound gratitude, but also deserve a healthcare system that provides support and protects them from the risks of their work. That means an open, compassionate culture with integration of care. Additionally, genuine bi-directional partnerships should exist that recognize emerging threats while addressing underlying inequities.
As health care organizations transition into post-pandemic conditions, they face numerous unexpected and pressing issues all at once – from shifting supply chains to supporting virtual workers; meeting worker needs without impacting wellbeing or productivity – just to name a few.
Priority one for all stakeholders must be to repair gaps in essential health services delivery. This involves addressing disruption or postponement of immunizations, school feeding programs and chronic disease services; as well as providing access to routine surgical care for those unable to schedule operations during the pandemic.
Finally, it is crucial that health systems possess the resilience required to withstand future crises. This requires breaking away from chronic underfunding of emergency response capacities for public health emergencies, building better laboratory networks and creating more robust information systems to identify outbreaks more quickly. Rethinking medical student education so they are better aware of how pathogens emerge and spread while being more prepared for novel threats that don’t fit existing patterns is also necessary.