The U.S. healthcare system has been facing several longstanding, complex challenges, including rising costs, inequitable access to care, overuse of care, supply chain weaknesses, and staffing shortages. COVID-19 only accelerated them, changing the healthcare landscape. One study estimates that hospitals will lose at least $54 billion in 2021 due to the pandemic.
As the world prepares for a post-COVID-19 era, the healthcare sector has already changed in four important ways: increased reliance on digital healthcare tools, the broader use of telehealth, shifts in the healthcare model, and a growing focus on public health.
1. Digital Healthcare
Digital technology had already made inroads into healthcare before COVID-19. However, doctors and hospitals found that digital tools helped them meet the challenges of the new normal. Everything from scheduling and billing to patient visits had to be reconfigured. Practice administrators had to manage a practice remotely. Doctors, nurses, and physician assistants had to treat patients via Zoom. All the while, providers had to comply with Medicare and HIPAA regulations.
As a result, many digital tools became further ingrained as part of the technology toolkit for doctors, hospitals, and other healthcare providers.
Perhaps the single biggest impact COVID-19 had on healthcare delivery was in telehealth. Prior to the pandemic, providers and patients alike had viewed telehealth with a great deal of skepticism. Telehealth had been initially proposed as a solution for rural communities and other areas with too few physicians. However, those areas also tend to have unreliable internet, which is critical to remote healthcare access. Despite the internet issues, COVID-19 illustrated that the proof of concept was sound.
When the pandemic hit, healthcare did a hard pivot. Telehealth and internet access became critical. While telehealth won’t replace in-person visits, its promise of improving access to care came closer to reality. Some of the changes include- reimbursement and cost of care, convenience, and reduced exposure.
3. The Healthcare Model Under Strain
Even before the pandemic, government officials, health industry researchers, and healthcare executives were concerned about the rising costs of healthcare and insurance premiums. Then COVID-19 caused a huge rise in the cost of care in a number of ways, putting a great deal of financial strain on hospitals. According to a study from Kaufman Hall, commissioned by the American Hospital Association (AHA), hospitals faced increased operating costs and loss of income due to the pandemic.
4. Public Health
The COVID-19 pandemic shined a spotlight on public health in the U.S. and around the globe. Calls for community action — masks, hygiene, and social isolation — led to mixed results. However, the lessons of the pandemic can be used to strengthen public health, especially in rural regions and other underserved areas, which could help improve the overall health of the population and keep costs low.
While COVID-19 has brought about tragedy and left economic and social turmoil in its wake, it has also spurred hospitals and health systems to adapt and innovate, even under conditions of great uncertainty, constrained resources and widespread anxiety. These adaptations and innovations will, we hope, build a stronger future for hospitals, health systems, health care workers and the communities they serve.