As 2019 came to a close, I was enjoying the New Year festivities with my friends and family in the brisk California winter. Halfway around the world, in the wet markets of Wuhan City, Hubei province, China, a new and insidious virus was taking roots among a vulnerable population. And soon the entire world radically began to change. We were soon made brutally aware that we truly do live in a “global village,” where the fates of a single city could have rippling consequences for the rest of the world.
Very soon, this disease was identified as a novel coronavirus, designated 2019-nCoV or COVID-19, as it would soon be called the world over. By the end of January, China reported an outbreak of nearly 12,000 cases. In the United States there had only been six. No one thought there was anything to worry about. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Neither they, nor I for that matter, could have predicted what would happen in the next few weeks.
The first US-based COVID-19 related death was announced at the end of February with 62 other cases in the country. On 11 March, the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic. There was no doubt. We knew our world was about to change.
The Darkest Nights
The sudden and rapid spread of the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in human history. With over 2.6 million reported cases by mid-April, this pandemic has led to the lockdown of entire nations across the globe. Who would have thought that we would be trapped inside our own homes? All the things we’ve taken for granted will suddenly disappear. Going to work, taking our kids to school, socializing with friends, gathering with relatives, shopping for groceries, and even simply shaking hands has not been the same since the pandemic.
For the longest time, it felt as if the threat was too distant, too alien. But my reality was truly shattered when a dear friend informed me that her brother had contracted the disease. He was admitted to the hospital for tests but within 48-hours the virus had taken another life. He never made it back home. Over the months, there have been over 186,000 such losses by mid-April itself —each life irreplaceable, leaving behind an indelible vacuum in the lives and families of millions forever. Even as the world inches toward developing a cure, a vaccine, or even an entirely new way of living, we can’t help but ask—what could we have done differently?
In fact, looking at the future, we have a responsibility to pursue answers to all the questions that this crisis has raised. What does the future hold? What can national healthcare systems and citizens do to ensure their future? Will there be another pandemic? How can we strengthen our public healthcare systems, infrastructure, resources, supply chains, mental well-being, and national policies? There is perhaps no end to these questions but that doesn’t mean we do not attempt to answer them.
I firmly believe that these questions are the fuel that will reshape the nature of our society going forward. They will pose challenges, hence opportunities, both at a personal level, as well as on an institutional level. These are challenges that we must overcome, problems we must solve, and solutions we must innovate. This transformation will require humanity to collaborate and dig-deep within itself to make the hard choices, the right choices, to preserve the future of our children, and our way of living. Here are three critical areas we need to address as we gear up for the post-pandemic era of humanity.
Save our heroes from becoming martyrs
During this time of crisis, we’ve seen the sacrifice and valor of the healthcare industry professionals, saving countless lives. From volunteering extra shifts to risking their personal safety to help others, we’ve seen these professionals go above and beyond the call of duty. We now have the opportunity to renew our respect for physicians, clinicians, nurses, caregivers, practitioners, and everyone else on the front lines of emergency response. We can honor their service and sacrifice by ensuring their efforts do not go in vain. This will require us to invest more deeply, not only in their welfare after the current pandemic, but also to ensure that institutions come together to augment this fight with real change. We can do this by reassessing how we train, support, enable and protect the front-liners and first-responders, so they are sufficiently supported in the face of the next crisis as well.
Adopt technology-enabled healthcare industry policies
At no time in human history have we been more connected than today, and yet we’re hindered at saving lives. Concepts such as remote patient monitoring and telehealth have long been proven and yet our policies are trapped in the purgatory of legacy systems and outmoded ways of thinking. We need to reimagine how technology interacts with the healthcare industry. Imagine a patient in a sparsely serviced area such as the Appalachians, easily getting diagnosed by a surplus medical professional in Florida. With technology enabled solutions, we can identify and care for patients safely in their own homes. During crisis scenarios, this can provide patients with remote triage, prescription support, care advice, and all the information they need to remain healthy. Unfortunately, the only thing standing in our way is the limitations of policy and bureaucracy, which is due for reform. While CMS has relaxed reimbursements and cross-state border physician license restrictions as a temporary measure, there is a great need for this to become the new normal. After all, if our children can learn and use Zoom and FaceTime as a normal part of their lives, why shouldn’t our citizens leverage the same tools to access quality healthcare.
Design and deploy smarter healthcare systems
As we enter a world where pandemic-like crisis can be expected far frequently than before, we have no choice but to identify our weaknesses and fix them. In the current scenario, we’ve already seen how easy it is for a surge in demand for healthcare services to make things chaotic. For instance, we’ve observed that patients risk exposure during intra-hospital transfers or during their shift to ICUs. Even interactions with isolation units holds the potential for a breach. From an IT perspective, we can find numerous ways of addressing these issues.
At first, we need to reimagine how hospitals and other healthcare services operate at the basic level. Healthcare facilities of tomorrow need to be centralized around a technology-enabled smart command center. This approach allows for increased automation and process management to help track, monitor, and define how cases are handled from a singular vantage point. These command centers can also help improve the connectivity and collaboration capabilities within the facility to help fill in critical information gaps to help minimize exposure risks in the future. Secondly, we need GPS-based contact tracing that allows healthcare professionals to help people that may have been infected by a confirmed patient. Of course, this kind of tracking poses privacy and compliance issues that will need to be addressed. This can be accomplished by integrating greater security and digital access controls using secure blockchain-based networks. And finally, we need to rapidly accelerate the state of data interoperability to enhance resource allocations between healthcare services during a pandemic situation. By converging data streams across EHRs and IT systems[PJSHA5] , we can leverage the power of machine learning and analytics to rapidly and accurately match requirements and resources, alter supply chains, and share patient information for healthcare professionals to make critical real-time decisions for saving more lives.
The Brightest Dawn
I can’t help but recall the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In his magical story, he tells us about the fictional town of Maconde that is driven to despair as all its people fall prey to the “illness of insomnia.” But what they lose above all is not their lives or their sanity, but their hope, their memories, and their compassion. Marquez was a prophet of the human condition, and his words remind me how the night is darkest before dawn.
Our greatest resource in the weeks and months ahead can’t simply be intellectual or technological—they need to be deeply human. We must never forget the lessons we’re learning, and take active measures to reshape how we deal with critical issues of public interest such as healthcare. There is indeed a fundamental shift happening in how we conceive the future of healthcare in our country and the world. We must strive to be a part of shaping this change rather than resisting it. In fact, we must lead it. That is the only way to ensure a brighter tomorrow for the next generation.