The COVID-19 pandemic had an immediate impact on most healthcare providers, who were faced with the challenges of treating patients in an environment that was uncertain and potentially dangerous. Decisions had to be made about closing practices and transitioning to virtual care for the health and safety of all concerned. Almost two years later, there are a number of indications as to the long term impact of COVID-19 on care delivery.
In a recent conversation with Medical Economics, Richard Roberts, M.D., J.D., Professor Emeritus of Public Health, Family Health at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine, noted some of his observations around the pandemic’s long-term impact. Dr. Roberts believes that healthcare providers will learn from the lessons of their challenges and be better prepared to face the next public health emergency.
One of those lessons comes from the expansion of telehealth options during the pandemic. Referring to it as “one of our creative responses,” Dr. Roberts advises that providers cannot forget that “patients actually need to be listened to” in a personal setting. He worries that the pendulum may swing too far in the direction of relying solely on the technology to provide telehealth visits.
He warns that telehealth sessions tend to be very brief and potentially impersonal. “You can’t touch their arm to reassure them that everything’s going to be okay. There’s so many things that we do that are really non-verbal, that I don’t want that to be lost.” He adds, “we still have to be mindful that this is about taking care of human beings and not checklists of symptoms that we are dealing with virtually.”
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Another of the long term impacts of COVID-19 on care delivery is the renewed focus on social determinants of health. As Dr. Roberts notes, the patient’s poverty level, education level, type of housing, and area of the community in which they live can all affect how they can access appropriate healthcare and, subsequently, how healthy they are in their daily lives.
There will also be renewed focus on coping mechanisms and mental health issues as a result of the effects of the pandemic. The increased use of alcohol and medications as well as an increase in food intake, combined with a lack of physical activity, may have long-term impacts on patients’ health. Care delivery going forward will need to include questions about patient behaviors and patient education about safe and healthy coping mechanisms.
Mental health services, for patients and healthcare workers alike, will also become increasingly important in care delivery. Patients will need to be screened for mental health concerns and possibly referred to appropriate providers in that area. Healthcare providers will need behavioral health support themselves, given the traumatic challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic for the medical industry.
One long term impact of COVID-19 on care delivery may affect the number of independent physicians. Burnout rates among employees of larger organizations have risen significantly during the pandemic. However, independent providers in private practices typically have a higher rate of job satisfaction, given that they can treat their patients with a level of autonomy that ensures they can provide the care they believe their patients need. Particularly important during and after the pandemic, the independent practice can contribute to lower costs and a higher quality of patient care.