In the wake of the ongoing coronavirus crisis, the American health care system has been tested in new ways, from overwhelming demands on health professionals to persistent difficulties in treating patients. Imagining a post-COVID world, then, can seem like years away.
But to the business leaders and health professionals who participated in the inaugural Sustainable Healthcare Access Reinvention Executive Dialogue, there are already key lessons to be learned from the tragedies of the pandemic – and from its successes.
Panelists offered their suggestions during an online roundtable on Nov. 30, presented in partnership by the Yale School of Public Health; Tevogen Bio, a biotech company headquartered in New Jersey; and Tapestry Networks, a professional services firm based in Massachusetts.
“The COVID-19 pandemic dramatized elements of American medical, public health and biopharmaceutical ecosystems. Some of these were inspiring, and some of them were woefully discouraging,” said YSPH Dean Sten Vermund, who moderated the discussion. “How do we learn from the positive model and carry that going forward?”
Vermund was joined by a panel of four experts from business, medicine and public health as they explored ways in which the pandemic could provide an opportunity for a more equitable future:
● Robert Galvin, chief medical officer and senior partner, Blackstone investment firm
● Bill Novelli, founder, Georgetown Business for Impact
● Joshua Steiner, chair of Castleton Commodities and senior advisor at Bloomberg L.P.
● Major General Irene Trowell-Harris (retired), YSPH alumna and former director of the Department of Veterans Affairs Center for Women Veterans
For Trowell-Harris, collaboration during the pandemic was key. Her time in the military prepared her to depend on a diverse group of experts in times of emergency, she said, and collaboration made it easier to succeed when the pandemic’s unprecedented roar through worldwide communities brought unexpected challenges.
It’s this same collaborative power that could aid in the fight against future outbreaks and health crises, she said.
“We don’t know what’s going to come next, but I think based on our experience, we are ready to respond the best that we can,” she explained. “And having someone in the White House and having all these experts around, we will be successful.”
Others shared this optimism. Galvin said that the shift to telehealth during the pandemic truly helped improve access to physicians – though, of course, there is more work to be done.
“If you don’t have access to [broadband], this isn’t helpful,” he said. “But it’s really impressive that there’s a 20 percent or 25 percent increase in the number of encounters that is going on between practitioners at any level and patients, and it looks permanent.”
There are insights to be gained from the failures, too, they said. For one, the pandemic laid bare the dramatic inequities among health professionals across the United States. Nursing home staff often performed their jobs without personal protective equipment in the early months of the crisis, said Trowell-Harris, and technology was often unreliable.
And for Lindee Goh, a Tapestry partner who co-facilitated the discussion, communication could be one way in which the pandemic has further brought to light an urgent need for improvement – especially when future outbreaks emerge in the decades to come.
“We’re all in our ivory towers,” she said. “How do we cross that and get down to communicating better and understanding not just the science … but how the public thinks in different segments? The public is not one faceless mass.”
Mental health was an issue as well, especially among nurses and other frontline workers. Addressing these issues could help lessen the nursing shortage, Trowell-Harris explained, and paying health care professionals a higher wage could even end up increasing bed capacity.
“We should be able to fix our system,” she said, “by calling everybody at the table, getting together. Let’s work on this together, now. The key thing is we must take care of those who take care of us.”
For Steiner, however, there remain obstacles in the way of improving conditions in the health care system, including a fear of waste.
In order to make changes at a respectable rate, he said, “we probably need to get comfortable with some elements of risk that have generally been antithetical to how we approach health care.”
Novelli suggested that the private sector was better equipped to deal with long-term public health problems than the government. Future and ongoing public health problems could be solved with increased investment, he said.
“We need to ask ourselves, ‘What is the business of health?’” he said. “We need to think about where this fits with social justice, with health equity. If we don’t get that right, we’re always going to have disruption and trouble.”