It’s natural to look forward to things returning “back to normal.” We yearn to gather again with friends, enjoy sporting events and resume everyday activities — the way they were back only two months ago.
When it comes to health care, though, there must be no going back. In several important areas, the COVID-19 pandemic has helped us recognize that what we accepted as “normal” was actually nowhere near good enough.
Our response to this crisis — focused, rapid and deliberate — gives me hope that lasting change can take root, and a better model for health care will emerge.
For my colleagues and me, “better than normal” means a health system that is more equitable, more convenient, more engaging and more prepared.
In terms of equity: This terrible virus has made the long-standing crisis of inequity in our nation’s health care system even worse. A Johns Hopkins University study found that the coronavirus death rate in predominantly black U.S. counties is six times higher than in predominantly white counties.
That’s not just “a disparity.” That’s a disgrace.
We are working closely with municipalities and state leadership to provide immediate care and testing now — and establish sustainable programs and services that will improve the quality of life for those suffering from social, financial and health disparities. Those efforts cannot be limited to this crisis.
Regarding convenience: It’s funny what happens when you can’t “go to the doctor.” Suddenly, virtual health moves from fringe to focal point. Health care — so advanced in medical technology — has been notoriously slow to adapt to services that customers flock to in other sectors. No more.
Virtual visits, expanded hours, providing drive-thru testing, offering walk-up screenings in underserved neighborhoods, using iPads so distant family members can “visit” loved ones, creating videos for physical rehab at home — all have blossomed overnight. And all of this will define the way we provide care going forward.
Engagement matters: One of our first initiatives to help our communities cope with the coronavirus was to establish a 24-hour hotline. Now, more than 65,000 calls later, we know that for many callers, this service is actually a lifeline. People call with routine and emergent health questions — and with behavioral health concerns. Sometimes, socially isolated people just need someone to talk to.
Our hospitals are open around-the-clock, of course. But most issues do not require acute-care treatment; they need expertise and compassion at 3 a.m. on the other end of the line. Our hotline isn’t going away.
Preparation is critical as well. Hospitals and health systems regularly conduct drills to be ready in the face of emergencies and disasters. Those reflexes and training serve us and our communities exceptionally well when there’s a mass casualty or severe weather.
There was no way to conduct a drill for a global pandemic. We learned as we’ve lived it.
Today, we have learned and know more about how to respond to a pandemic than we did before. Never again can our great nation be caught shorthanded in such a time of immense need. Ventilators, masks, testing kits — the fundamental artillery in a battle against a viral enemy — need to be stockpiled and available at the state and national levels. And, if experts’ dire predictions of additional waves of the coronavirus are unfortunately accurate, that work needs to be already underway.
The pandemic continues to be a harrowing experience for us all. But each crisis presents unique opportunities, and we would be foolish to squander the rapid advancements and innovations we’ve undertaken to lessen its impact.
With careful planning, attention to data, use of technology and the inclusive elevation of voices from our most at-risk communities, we have an opportunity to create a new normal that sets the pace for the country.
The health care “normal” we came from is not the normal we should ever want to return to. I look forward to a time without face masks, to gathering in groups and watching ball games. And all of that in a society where all our neighbors have the opportunity to live their healthiest lives.
That’s a “new normal” we can all believe in.
Jeffrey A. Flaks is president and chief executive officer of Hartford HealthCare in Hartford, Connecticut.