Has COVID Accelerated Digital Transformation in Public Health?
It is encouraging to see the progress we are making against COVID. Although there has been much debate surrounding aspects of our pandemic response, what we cannot debate are some of the ways it has changed our lives forever – like making our lives so highly digitized. During a year of lockdowns and restrictions, so many businesses fundamentally reimagined the way they worked and delivered services during 2020. Every aspect of business was upended, from the need for physical offices to fundamental shifts in how IT organizations meet the needs of distributed workforces.
For the most part, this change has been viewed positively and will have lasting implications for just about everything in our society. As hybrid work models continue post-pandemic, commuting will reduce, and traffic congestion may not return to pre-pandemic levels. Additionally, our expectations and utilization of home delivery will never be the same post-pandemic.
Similarly, public health went through massive change. Since the advent of COVID, few sectors of the economy have been as disrupted as public health. Everything we knew about providing services to keep the public safe and healthy went out the window in March of last year. Public health responded heroically, performing under immense workloads with fewer than optimal resources. As facilities were overwhelmed and understaffed, our public health system bent but did not break. Soon, we will be looking at COVID through the rear-window. What lasting changes do we hope will be embraced by public health as a result? Here are two we should consider.
One of the first things that public health systems will need permanently is the ability to provide services remotely. Telemedicine has been around for decades but over the last year it went from a fringe technology to a core capability. According to the CDC, there was a 158% increase in telehealth visits from March 2019 to March 2020. That’s a staggering number, but in the context of the pandemic it makes total sense. That’s because medical facilities didn’t want to play a role in spreading the virus by having people get sick while coming in for appointments. Allowing patients to get care at home helped keep most hospitals from getting overwhelmed while still providing high levels of care to patients. As we get back to “normal” life, this approach needs to remain front and center.
Another major revolution that will most likely become permanent is on the technology side. Public health departments were faced with an unprecedented crisis, and one of the major byproducts was a huge amount of data generated by everyone from life-sciences companies to the federal government to individual patients. Information has always been the lifeblood of public health programs, but very few departments were equipped to handle the avalanche of data when the pandemic arrived in the United States in March 2020. Public health IT departments took extraordinary measures to stay ahead of the curve and are a big reason why the American health system was able to remain functional. Public health data management technologies have proven their worth during the pandemic and deserve to be invested in and carried into the future.
There’s no single factor that will make public health departments more efficient and improve their ability to provide better care as we move out of the pandemic. There are too many moving pieces. But by evaluating the best practices that helped us get through the darkest days of the novel coronavirus, we can make sure that the most effective approaches will become standard operating procedure in the years and decades ahead.