The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing a rapid transformation of healthcare. And although we won’t understand the extent of the impact until after the crisis has subsided, there are a number of insights to be gleaned from the current state of affairs. Here, we’re exploring how some of the changes we’re observing at the moment may define how healthcare operates in the future.
Enabling Greater Access to Care
It may be difficult to anticipate how consumer behaviors and preferences might change in the aftermath of the pandemic, but as the weight of social distancing lingers, people may be hesitant to return to in-person activities that can be done remotely.
Telehealth or telemedicine, which has long been touted as a more efficient alternative to traditional in-person care, is also proving its weight in the fight against coronavirus — allowing vulnerable individuals to access care from home, while freeing up resources to deal with the most critical patients. Virtual care platforms have gained rapid ground amid the COVID-19 crisis, from the recent expansion of Medicare’s telehealth benefits to partnerships between telehealth providers and healthcare organizations, retailers, urgent care clinics and technology companies.
As the coronavirus spreads beyond America’s cities to rural, resource-deprived areas, telehealth will likely become even more critical in reaching and treating vulnerable populations. And while the conditions driving the current expansion of telehealth may be extreme, the need for more efficient and accessible care will endure long after this pandemic has passed.
Acceleration of Interoperability
Despite some controversy, interoperability rules from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Office of National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) were finalized on March 9, 2020. Whether current compliance deadlines will stand in light of COVID-19 remains to be seen. However, interoperability may be accelerated in practice, as immediate and widespread data-sharing has proven essential in understanding, managing and combatting the virus.
With screening guidelines and treatment protocols changing often, the importance of having a streamlined flow of health information is being brought further to light. Taiwan, for example, has maintained a relatively low number of COVID-19 cases as compared to other nations, despite its close proximity to hard-hit China. While a number of contributing factors are likely to account for these numbers, Taiwan’s use of big data and technology is thought to have played a major role. By integrating its national health insurance and immigration and customs databases, Taiwan was able to quickly screen individuals based on recent travel history and require those who visited a high-risk area to quarantine at home.
As COVID-19 propels us into a new, virtual reality, the ability to efficiently and securely exchange data across systems and organizations will be vital to building a connected healthcare infrastructure, especially if virtual care emerges as the norm.
Recognition of Social Determinants in Improving Outcomes
COVID-19 has emphasized many of the flaws that exist in today’s healthcare system — namely, the socioeconomic inequities acting as barriers to health.
For a virus that discriminates against no one in susceptibility, it has cast a glaring light on the vulnerability of older adults to the myriad effects of a global pandemic, and the health disparities that exist between high- and low-income groups. Self-isolation measures, while viable to an extent in white-collar professions, often do not apply to many of the nation’s low-wage workers, for whom remote work is not an option. For seniors, isolation is considered a social determinant of health that can potentially make other health issues worse and lead to poor outcomes.
Today’s health crisis is providing a focused and quantifiable view of how social determinants factor into health outcomes. With millions of Americans abruptly out of work, the socioeconomic impact of COVID-19 will undoubtedly be seen in its aftermath, forcing healthcare professionals to seriously evaluate social determinants of health in caring for individuals and populations.
Combatting Future Pandemics
As we find ourselves in the epicenter of COVID-19, looking at the aftereffects of pandemics throughout history can provide hope in mitigating future health crises. The cholera outbreak of the early 1800s, for example, initiated new zoning laws, plumbing and sewer systems to prevent the spread of the disease. The rapid, cross-border spread of the 1918 influenza pandemic (“the Spanish flu”) prompted the 1919 formation of the League of Nations, which would become the World Health Organization we know today.
With each passing day, we are learning new things about the novel coronavirus making its way around the world — information researchers, scientists and innovators can use to better respond to future viral outbreaks.