Lessons from 2020: 3 Takeaways for 2021 Medical Practice

The COVID-19 pandemic was a massive disrupter of healthcare systems, exacerbating its various shortcomings and serving as an important catalyst for transformation in both public and private sectors across the globe. With the approved vaccine rollout progressing, the end of this immensely challenging time is on the horizon and it is important to approach the beginning of the new year strategically.

Throughout the past year, the practice of medicine changed drastically with traditional pre-COVID methods rapidly replaced by digital and remote monitoring telehealth solutions. Now with a heightened awareness of existing economic and health inequities, the viral outbreak has exacerbated the need to take better care of public health and effectively address the prevailing barriers to care that affect millions of patients.

Despite its devastation, the global health crisis has provided the world with a tremendous learning opportunity that needs to be used to the advantage of the practice of medicine. Taking into account the critical lessons the past year has taught us, we must transform and shape the future of healthcare. To help clinicians and healthcare organizations, Jag Singh, MD professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and clinical director of cardiology at Massachusetts General Hospital, and other medical professionals have outlined a few key lessons from 2020 to implement into practice moving forward.

1. Expand Virtual Care Services

Virtual care is a crisis response to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions in an attempt to provide medical care while keeping both patients and providers safe. Its primary positive impact was on access, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness of medical care delivery and it will continue to be a big driver of future medical practice. This will be assisted by sensor-aided virtual care powered by predictive analytical data and self-care algorithms that leverage emerging technology to consistently monitor patient health.

“Chronic diseases that remain the Achilles heel of the healthcare system,” Dr. Singh wrote in a recent article published on MedPage Today, “along with the growing emphasis on wellness and prevention, will be the central focus of this care revolution.”

An investment in virtual services will not only improve the patient-provider dynamic, but it will also evolve the business of medicine and enable it to serve patients through continuous and timely interactions. Healthcare organizations and facilities paving the way out of the COVID-19 crisis are in the position to set the stage for positive change, however, the success of these efforts will be determined by the speed of innovation and the ability to adapt.

Anup D. Salgia, DO, FACEP, senior physician executive shared her insight with Cerner in a September 2020 article: “I think this pandemic will change the delivery of care forever…Technology is the answer to how we provide better disease surveillance, better patient-consumer engagement and better care delivery. I think technology, and our experiences during this public health crisis will lead our industry to do more, intelligently.”

While there is no clear roadmap for the road ahead, the reality of digital transformation marks the need to ensure technologies and medical care overcome existing inequities in health and be made accessible to all patients.

2. Address Social and Racial Disparities

The pandemic has highlighted racial disparities that continue to permeate population health. While communities of color comprise around 30% of the United States population, they represent over 50% of COVID-19 cases nationwide. According to the latest data, Black patients are twice as likely as White patients to be hospitalized for COVID-19 and experience a doubled mortality rate. Alongside increased morbidity and mortality present in marginalized communities, the pandemic has highlighted gaps and inadequacies within the healthcare system at all levels.

An array of factors contributes to social and racial disparities that greatly affect the wellbeing of minority patients. For instance, the stresses of poverty, racial injustice, poor quality housing, and inadequate education are important social determinants negatively impacting the health of millions of vulnerable patients. Contributing to the widening divide are structural inequities, social exclusion, and differential access to adequate medical care as highlighted by the composition of the uninsured population – of which the majority are patients of color.

Furthering the problem is the huge obstacle of patient distrust; systemic racism permeates the healthcare system to varying degrees and fosters distrust among marginalized populations. Tackling this requires multi-level structural change and concerted efforts to make translation services, access to educational resources and care, as well as comprehensive care facilities more available. In addition, increased racial representation within the medical community is needed to create a more inclusive and trustworthy culture.

The year of 2020 illuminated the inequities we need to overcome, highlighting the importance of equitable care to proper functioning. As a recent article published on Accountable Care Doctors states, it is critical for policymakers, healthcare providers, and payers to address these health disparities to ensure widespread community health. Without equal opportunities to care, the health of the global population will suffer alongside that of the most vulnerable, marginalized demographics.

3. Connect with and Support Others 

Global connectivity has been emphasized by the widespread impact of the pandemic, which spread from its place of origin at incredible speed, spotlighting the pressing need to improve global health. The past year has revealed the true interconnectedness of our planet placing connection, support, and unity at the forefront of the frontlines. With this in mind, future efforts need to take this opportunity to improve both global society and health to prevent further pandemics and their drastic repercussions.

By connecting with other healthcare organizations and professionals, clinicians can help strengthen medical care on a local level while prioritizing the goal of a patient-centered care model.

In addition, coordinated care improves the patient experience by supporting timely communication, enabling ease of access to various services, and streamlining the process of comprehensive patient-centered care. “The modern primary care physician is at the center of an integrated delivery system, surrounded by the specialists, ancillary services, team members and information required to deliver a superb patient experience and the highest level of coordinated care,” experts at Accountable Care Doctors explain.

With a focus on patient-centered care, the improvement of global population health is possible although it will require systemic change, comprehensive efforts, and beyond all, coordination and unity. Leveraging the critical lessons the year of 2020 has taught us, systems and clinicians may need to continue adapting and innovating as patient needs transform over the coming years. As the environment slowly returns to its pre-pandemic state, we may hope the focus of medicine will shift toward fixing the most urgent shortcomings, gaps, and inequities made apparent, supporting the most vulnerable patient populations, and optimizing the functioning of the system as a whole.