One year ago, the furious rise and spread of COVID-19 placed the entire world on pause. In big ways and small, in our personal and professional lives, the need to deal with the health threat of our lifetime relegated nearly everything else to the back burner. Nothing was more important than staying safe and protecting our loved ones.
The healthcare sector is no exception. Before the eruption of the pandemic, there were many significant issues sitting high on the list of things healthcare professionals needed to think about and address. Affordability, access to care, rising competition in the marketplace—these are just some of the many challenges that were overshadowed by COVID-19 during these past 12 months.
We are not out of the woods yet. But the superb efforts of our scientists and medical research labs have provided us with effective vaccines in record time. Now that we are moving closer to the post-pandemic era, we need to refocus, and start envisioning the path forward.
I believe there are six environmental forces that are driving healthcare and all sectors of society to respond and transform like never before:
Biologic concerns. While we continue to work through the current pandemic, we need to be cognizant that other viruses and communicable diseases are out there. Antimicrobial resistance and other factors make a future pandemic more a question of when than if. This mindset is essential to being ready for the next global outbreak. And we must understand the hard lessons from this one to prepare.
The economic crisis. The weakened economy has exacerbated the gap between rich and poor. Some economists estimate it will take a decade to get back to stable financial footing. Prolonged high unemployment will mean that more of the people we serve will be uninsured or covered by government insurance. We must have the ability to continue caring for all in need regardless of their ability to pay.
Social inequities. Recent events have shined a light on the racial and social disparities that exist in nearly every aspect of society, including healthcare. We have a responsibility to do our part and ensure everyone in our communities has an equal chance to live the healthiest life possible. Many of the nation’s hospitals were moving in this direction already, focusing on social determinants of health as the best way to help individuals and entire communities attain health. This is very important work to resume and should be a top priority going forward.
Climate change. The health of the planet has a profound effect on the health of communities, especially on those who are most poor and vulnerable. Last year’s wildfires in the West are a prime example of the role of climate change and how it can have fatal consequences and affect even the quality of the air we breathe. As caregivers, we can work to illuminate the link between planetary health and individual health.
Political polarization. The nation is deeply divided politically with ideologies stretching to both ends of the spectrum. Healthcare is one of the key issues at the center of the debate. We must anchor into our values as a democracy and find ways to listen to one another and meet in the middle. Otherwise, our most vulnerable members of society will be most impacted.
Cybersecurity. As healthcare providers, patients entrust us with personal medical information. Moreover, armed with sophisticated tactics, cybercriminals have placed practically every part of society at risk. Hospitals and health systems of every size have been a frequent target of ransomware and the problem grew worse during the height of the pandemic. To say it simply: This cannot continue.
None of these areas is a quick or easy fix, but they present incredible opportunities. By addressing these issues head on, with innovation and compassion, our communities will emerge from the greatest crisis of our lifetime resilient and transformed.