The novel coronavirus has surged throughout every populated continent, and with each crest and swell, millions of people have fallen ill, and more than 280,000 have died.
In addition to this devastation, other aspects of society have come to a grinding halt as people have been required to quarantine and practice social distancing to mitigate the spread of the virus. Perhaps no other part of society will bear these many scars more prominently in the months and years to come as the healthcare industry.
As America reopens and quarantine restrictions are lifted, what will the new healthcare landscape look like? Here are three significant changes you can expect to see.
Telemedicine Could Become The New Norm
Despite the fact telemedicine technology has been around for many years, its growth has been relatively slow, with numerous medical disciplines stubbornly refusing to adopt these new techniques, even in specialties well-suited for telemedicine.
Part of this friction is related to the reluctance of patients to engage in online platforms. High costs, clumsy programs used for interfacing with patients, regulatory hurdles, ensuring privacy protection, maintaining security throughout connections and establishing adequate billing and insurance coverage paradigms for these healthcare encounters have also contributed to telemedicine’s sluggish growth.
However, since the coronavirus hit America, times have changed. High traffic in and out of clinics and hospitals place everyone at risk and perpetuate viral transmission, effectively forcing healthcare providers to critically examine each of their patient visits and decide if they truly demand an in-person encounter. Not surprisingly, many types of healthcare delivery have been transitioned to internet-based communication.
This evolution has the potential to provide many long-term benefits. Although existing evidence is mixed about telemedicine costs under pre-COVID-19 conditions, with the proper reforms, telemedicine could be a much more affordable alternative to traditional modes of medical delivery in many specialties. Additionally, it is undeniable that telemedicine increases access to healthcare for people in rural communities and in other places marginalized by various other barriers.
Obviously, many medical specialties still require in-office visits so that physicians or healthcare workers can make crucial assessments regarding physical exam findings and vital signs. Further, certain forms of treatment simply cannot be delivered remotely, no matter how effective telemedicine becomes. However, as we pace through the COVID-19 pandemic, time will continue to reveal that many components of healthcare can exist in a virtual world.
Medical Education Will Become More Accessible Than Ever
Shortly after it became apparent that COVID-19 poses a substantial threat to public health, college campuses and academic facilities, including those dedicated to providing medical training, experienced a mass exodus of students and faculty, forcing educators to resort to online education platforms.
Although many schools have had the ability to record lectures and provide tests and other assignments online for more than a decade, the popularity of online educational formats have yet to match in-person learning.
The coronavirus has made many forms of learning impossible or difficult, creating important opportunities for medical educators to rely more on virtual models, especially when it comes to providing lectures.
In addition to reducing costs, which remain incredibly high at many medical higher-education institutions, virtual learning can greatly increase access to learning, especially in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).
Virtual learning could open the door to an entirely new generation of capable and diverse physicians that otherwise would not have the opportunity to pursue medical professions.
Distance education models could also expand access to conferences and high-level meetings. For example, many academics from LMICs have trouble attending large conferences, even ones geared toward global health and health systems strengthening in countries like their own. Now that recent academic conferences have resorted to virtual platforms, perhaps that will set a precedent as a means to provide entry for LMIC researchers who have geographic or financial barriers.
Many forms of medical education still require team-based learning, in-person learning experiences (like cadaver dissections) and small group lectures that rely on the Socratic method, but that shouldn’t stop educators from utilizing distance education whenever possible.
Healthcare Facilities Could Expand
In some regions of the United States, the most pressing concern for healthcare providers is the prospect of facilities reaching maximum capacity for treating patients, both in terms of hospital beds and available equipment. Some have forgotten that the #FlattenTheCurve movement had much more to do with preventing overburdening and collapse of the healthcare system than actually decreasing the number of people who catch COVID-19.
The United States has only 2.9 hospital beds per 1,000 people, one of the lowest ratios among all of the world’s high-income counties. For comparison, Japan, South Korea and Germany have bed densities of 13.5, 11.5 and 8.3 beds per 1,000 people, respectively.
The reason for this discrepancy is multifactorial. High costs, supply and demand dynamics and federal and state regulations all play a role.
For example, certificate of need (CON) laws, which exist in 36 states and the District of Columbia, require healthcare providers to get permission from state governments to build new medical facilities, expand existing ones or even to provide new services or add hospital beds.
New York, one of the epicenters of coronavirus, is a prime example. Some researchers propose that without CON laws, the state could increase the number of its hospitals by up to 30 percent.
The present pandemic has clearly shown that the United States needs more hospital beds. For now, temporary solutions have been put in place to combat the still-growing COVID-19 threat. But, eventually, long-term changes will be necessary to better prepare the country for its next healthcare crisis. But in order for that to occur, federal and state regulations will need to be erased or heavily modified to meet the needs of the sick and vulnerable in our community.