How COVID-19 Amplified Healthcare Challenges and Exposed the Need for Innovation

The COVID-19 pandemic challenged the healthcare system in ways it had rarely been challenged before and, with unprecedented speed, bore a new age of health and medical innovation. In this piece, we will address the challenges that were amplified by COVID-19 and the ways in which these challenges gave rise to accelerated innovation in the healthcare industry.

Addressing the Challenges that were Amplified by COVID-19

The onset of COVID-19 placed significant stress on care delivery settings such as hospitals. According to the U.S. Premier Healthcare Database, nearly one in four COVID-19 deaths may be attributed to hospital strain related to case overload. This overload, which is particularly severe in the United States, is due in part to rapidly escalating demand for services, an increase in staff burnout, limited supplies including personal protective equipment, and insufficient ICU bed availability. The absence of adequate preparation from hospitals undergoing surges, while regrettable, reveals an opportunity for new innovative solutions that allow the healthcare system to prevent further occurrences. These plans could consist of a combination of training for surge capacity situations, better instruction from state and federal governments, routine resource audits, and proper education for hospital administrators to better manage distressed systems. We could also take note of what has worked in countries such as China and Japan and build temporary hospitals to absorb patient overflow in the future. These changes could allow for better quality of care going forward, even in the event of another surge in demand for medical services.

Addressing the Challenges of an Aging Population

The challenges we have seen during the pandemic are going to persist as healthcare takes on an aging population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the aging population in America grew by more than 3.2% from 2018 to 2019. This equates to more than 52.7 million seniors as of 2019. The Bureau also projects that within twenty years, the senior population will outnumber children. Furthermore, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services report that national healthcare expenditure is expected to increase to 19.4% of GDP in 2027, driven primarily by a large part of the population aging into Medicare eligibility. It is clear that American seniors will be driving demand for healthcare services in the coming decades.

It is vital that the healthcare system adapt and enhance its capabilities to provide adequate service to the impending class of seniors. Embracing innovations in healthcare technology, emphasizing accessibility, and highlighting the importance of technological literacy will all be crucial to achieving this task. According to a recent survey of Medicare-eligible seniors regarding life during the coronavirus pandemic, 61% embraced technology with a 300% increase in the use of telemedicine services.

Technology and its application have accelerated dramatically, but we need to make sure that people who are not tech-savvy do not get lost. The survey results showed there is opportunity to assist seniors with advances such as monitoring their health through wearable devices or ordering prescriptions from an online pharmacy. The key to best serving this population is to make its members more comfortable with the role technology plays in the current healthcare market, while still delivering the quality of care and interpersonal connection that they have come to associate with a historically traditional version of healthcare.

COVID-19 and Social Determinants of Health (SDOH)

A vital component of value-based care is seeing members holistically and integrating social determinants of health (SDOH) with clinical data. While this trend started pre-COVID, the financial hardships experienced by so many during the pandemic have exacerbated the impact of SDOH on people’s lives. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported from the US Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey in June 2021 that nearly one in five adults had lost employment as well as the same rate of adults who had delayed medical care. More than half (51%) of adults reported difficulty paying for usual household expenses. Basic needs, such as food especially for families with children, were not being met. These underlying economic security issues have a direct impact on a person’s health.

State Medicaid programs are often the most direct way to assist families in need. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) published guidance for states about opportunities to use Medicaid as a means to address SDOH in January 2021. “While many states, managed care plans, and providers have recognized the importance of addressing SDOH for Medicaid and CHIP beneficiaries, the growing shift towards alternative payment models and value-based care has accelerated the interest in addressing SDOH within Medicaid and CHIP in order to lower health care costs, improve health outcomes, and increase the cost-effectiveness of health care services and interventions.”

As stated in a previous Enlace Insights article, ‘Home Care and Telehealth in the Value-Based Space’, COVID-19 has impacted the healthcare industry in a multitude of ways, but perhaps none is greater than the normalization of care-at-home versus care-in-person.

Innovative ways to impact SDOH included assistance with food insecurity by directly driving food to vulnerable populations (vs. food banks which were not always operational during the pandemic) and providing smartphones to patients for telehealth visits. Telemedicine was instrumental throughout COVID-19, breaking down previous barriers to use related to payments and other regulations while meeting patients where they were to provide much-needed care.

COVID-19 challenged the American healthcare system in ways that it had rarely been challenged before. It created new problems and exacerbated existing weaknesses. However, it also provided ample opportunity for groundbreaking innovation and technologies that will improve the lives of millions going forward. These exciting emerging technologies create and rely on new data, and this data can be used to continue finding novel solutions to persistent and emerging challenges.

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