The COVID-19 crisis has exposed strengths and weaknesses in the American healthcare system. The extraordinary devotion of healthcare workers and the quick adaptations facilities made to add beds in lobbies and tents were exceptional responses. Yet workers were often at risk because of shortages of personal protective equipment, and poor communication confused the public and delayed mass adoption of simple preventative measures like wearing masks. How the pandemic will permanently change healthcare remains to be seen, but several outcomes seem likely.
Telehealth Becomes the Norm
Practitioners supported by large healthcare organizations with the means in place to rely on remote visits adapted well to social distancing and patient resistance to in-person visits. Patients like the convenience and privacy of talking to their doctors face-to-face through a laptop or tablet. Unfortunately, underserved and low-income populations—those most at risk from COVID-19—have less access to the technology necessary to participate in telehealth services. Healthcare organizations must find innovative ways to provide remote routine healthcare to these vulnerable groups.
Providers with less access to big organizational support must carefully select a telehealth platform that preserves patient privacy but enables excellent, secure access to critical data and patient medical history in order to provide quality care.
Medical Device Design Adapts
With the surge in remote care, medical device design will respond to this new user experience. At-home testing will expand, adding to the array of home tests and screenings already available. Patients can test their own glucose and cholesterol levels and screen for certain cancers. Soon they may be able to use microfluidic devices at home to perform blood tests formerly possible only with a blood draw at the doctor’s office and an analysis by a fully equipped lab. Remote monitoring of patients with chronic conditions, like cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and COPD, will likely expand.
Financial Stress for Hospitals
Facilities that relied on elective surgeries for revenue have seen income plunge while expenses increase. Adding staff and equipment to combat COVID-19 while elective procedures that generate just enough cash to get by have dried up may result in closings or consolidations, reducing the number of facilities available to provide care to vulnerable patients.
Small, free-standing surgical centers offering procedures outside of full-blown hospital settings may pick up patients and expand their services.
Pharmaceuticals and Biotech Startups Compete
The intense competition to win the race to a safe and effective vaccine and treatments has big pharma investing heavily in research and clinical testing. Smaller start-ups, once flush, may run out of funding trying to participate. Winners will still have to negotiate the complex web of international barriers to distribution—supply chain problems, taxes, tariffs, and other forms of protectionism may affect the delivery of vital vaccines and drugs to various populations globally. Pricing and affordability of critical pharmaceutical products will be an issue.
How healthcare will change in response to the pandemic is a constantly unfolding process. Patient care takes priority over profit at times like these. Poorly financed healthcare organizations with little leeway to adapt may fail or be absorbed.