The speed and scale of the COVID-19 pandemic response highlighted the fragmentation of current healthcare systems across the globe and how it significantly impairs the ability to respond effectively. Making matters worse, the impact of the pandemic on population health and the functionality of healthcare systems has been and will continue to be far-reaching and long-lasting.
As the world attempts to rebuild from the pandemic, many individuals are left with serious and lingering health issues that require immediate and consistent attention. Healthcare practitioners are now facing a rising prevalence of chronic disease, growing cases of long COVID infection, as well as pandemic-influenced mental, physical, and emotional crises.
Addressing the devastating psychological and physical aftereffects of the pandemic will require deviation from the current standard of medicine. An integrated approach to patient care heavily grounded in functional medicine is emerging as the solution to healing global public health and repairing the siloed structures of the healthcare industry.
Multi-Faceted Health Consequences
Since the pandemic began, dramatic changes in lifestyle behaviors – immobilization, decreased socialization, and physical inactivity – are causing health and wellbeing repercussions in both infected individuals and the general population. Further still, the emergence of “long COVID” has proven to be an additional factor adversely affecting recovery.
Up to 30% of those diagnosed with COVID-19 report persisting health concerns regardless of the severity of their initial infection. This accounts for between 5.4 to 17.9 million individuals suffering from systemic health consequences on a global scale. These patients experience symptoms ranging from pulmonary fibrosis and myocarditis to chronic fatigue and cognitive dysfunction; the long-term outcomes are impossible to predict due to the novelty of the virus.
In addition, a recently published study reports that longer-term effects of COVID-19 in older adults are similar, with around one-third of these patients developing new conditions as a result of infection, compared with one-fifth of older adults who did not have COVID-19.
The Future of Healthcare Lies in Functional Medicine
In a post-pandemic world, the new reality for healthcare will require a redesign of current systems that includes broadened networks with patients at the center of the model to deliver coordinated and consistent care services. Scaling primary care alongside the integration of care between settings has the potential to boost population health, strengthen prevention methods, reduce system-wide costs, and, most importantly, improve patient health outcomes.
The many vulnerabilities of population health and care systems uncovered by the pandemic have placed an increased focus on integrating functional medicine into the traditional model. In addressing the root causes of illness, functional medicine takes into account a complete picture of each patient’s health status and treats abnormalities in all relevant markers.
The rising complexity of patient care necessitates an integrative health approach that combines traditional medical management, non-pharmacologic strategies, and physician-supported lifestyle interventions. This method has already proven beneficial in treating fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and post-Lyme disease and is the most promising plan of action for long-term health.
Need for Integrated Medical Education Curriculum
The emerging prevalence of COVID-19 aftereffects signals an urgent need for a fully functioning integrated care model, which cannot be achieved without the appropriate education and training. While the medical curriculum, in general, has already begun to expand beyond specific disciplines, incorporating material on various topics, gaps in clinical knowledge remain.
A unified approach to education and comprehensive medical training programs can help produce clinicians aptly equipped with the latest tools and knowledge in functional medicine that can collaborate across the system to deliver the best standard of care.
Pandemic-inspired innovation in clinical practice has allowed practitioners the opportunity to evolve their practice and treat patients more effectively with an emphasis on one-on-one interactions and patient-centered, whole-body care. Congruently, the growing acceptance of an integrative model of care is blurring the lines between specialties, encouraging a systems-based standard in which every healthcare professional plays a vital role in patient health outcomes.
The need for functional medicine to quell the multi-faceted repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic is now more evident and more urgent than ever before. Integrative healthcare strategies are not only an essential part of fighting chronic illness but can be leveraged in response to future pandemic or endemic situations and to optimize overall population health.