As stay-at-home orders throughout the country begin to lift state by state, many people, particularly leaders in the healthcare industry, are trying to determine what the new normal looks like going forward. There are still many questions left unanswered that make concrete planning efforts for the future difficult if not impossible to achieve. With no vaccine in sight and wide-scale testing capability proving difficult to accomplish, it remains unclear what will happen when people once again begin to congregate, however socially distanced they may be. Amid all the uncertainty, healthcare facilities, patients and providers have already been impacted by the pandemic in major ways. Here are a few of our observations, and how they may affect the future of healthcare.
Demand for Community Health Workers, Contract Tracers and On-Site Healthcare Screeners Surging
Because so many people infected with the COVID-19 virus are asymptomatic, outbreaks quietly developing on the east and west coasts of the United States went mostly unnoticed by the majority of the population until hospital admissions began to soar. Many health experts, including Doctor Anthony Fauci from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, have said that widespread testing and contact tracing are necessary in order to quickly identify and prevent new outbreaks as the country reopens. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security included community health workers on its list of essential critical infrastructure workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Proponents of this aggressive testing strategy point to South Korea, which recently announced its first day of zero new COVID-19 infections since February, and it credits mass testing and digital contract tracing with helping the country achieve this result. The test-and-trace strategy allowed South Korea to flatten the curve without using the sweeping lockdown measures many other countries, including the United States, have used. So far, 41 states have hired more than 7,000 contract tracers and say they plan to hire nearly 40,000 more.
Where Will the Next Hotspot Occur and Are Local Hospitals Prepared?
As the first outbreaks of COVID-19 began to fill and then completely overwhelm hospitals, states quickly reached out wherever they could to find additional healthcare workers to support their regular hospital staff. The Governors of California, Michigan and New York publicly pleaded with healthcare professionals nationwide, even those who had already retired, to come help fight the disease in their states. The federal government issued a regulation allowing healthcare professionals to practice across state lines, and a number of states temporarily waived licensure requirements for physicians, nurses and other providers. While nationwide lockdown orders have at least temporarily curbed the increase of new infections, it remains to be seen where and how soon new outbreaks will occur as states begin to reopen.
Mental Health of Healthcare Providers Must Be Recognized and Prioritized
Even before COVID-19 ravaged some of America’s largest cities, studies had found that not properly addressing the mental health needs of healthcare workers can lead to medical errors, decreased productivity and high turnover rates, which can be costly to hospitals. Years-long shortages of doctors, nurses and other medical staff nationwide have led to our healthcare providers working longer hours and treating more patients, currently including a large population of baby boomers, who tend to be sicker while living longer. Add to this the trauma of treating multiple COVID-19 patients – while many of these healthcare providers contract the virus themselves – and a fast-track to burnout, and other, more serious issues, begins to emerge. One study out of China found that 50% of healthcare workers who treated COVID-19 patients showed signs of depression, 45% reported anxiety and 72% experienced some form of psychological distress.
New Focus on Telehealth as Consumer Adoption Skyrockets During Pandemic
Despite telehealth’s proven ability to improve healthcare quality for patients in rural communities, which have seen more than 100 hospitals shut down over the past decade, widespread adoption of the service has been elusive. Leading obstacles include Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement issues, provider restrictions and patient access to high speed internet connections. Additionally, many consumers were simply not aware that telehealth was available to them, despite 76% of all U.S. hospitals offering video or other technology to connect providers and patients. COVID-19 may be helping to change all that. The pandemic put many people in the agonizing position of needing of some type of healthcare but being too terrified to visit a provider for fear of contracting the virus. A recent survey found that nearly two-thirds of respondents said the pandemic had increased their willingness to try virtual care. Additionally, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Management expanded access to telehealth to help support patient safety and control the spread of the virus.
How Will the COVID-19 Pandemic End and Will We Ever Return to the Old Normal?
It’s important to keep in mind that this isn’t the first time the world has experienced a pandemic. And although nobody can say when, it will certainly end. Science will come to our rescue, in the form of a vaccine or widespread immunity. COVID-19 has been a catalyst for change in the everyday lives of nearly everyone on the planet. People are living, working and socializing in new and completely different ways, often grudgingly. The pandemic has made clear that flexibility is the key to our survival. The future of healthcare, when it comes to both staffing models and access to care, is no different.