Healthcare executives have typically pointed to resource scarcity as the reason for the high costs and poor outcomes of the United States health system. Now that the COVID pandemic has claimed over 550,000 lives and resulted in over 30 million cases in a country with immense resources, it is clear that healthcare leaders have asked the wrong questions.
Given the apparent leadership failures in containing the pandemic and politicizing the public health response, it is clear that health care organizations and leaders need to pay more attention to frontline workforce problems that have been neglected for years. While COVID has resulted in catastrophic loss of life, it also has some important organizational lessons for health care leaders and what initiatives they need to invest in to support the next generation of health care workers. Using the most recent data, the key lessons are summarized below.
Prioritize the mental health and wellbeing of healthcare workers
Even before the COVID pandemic, up to 60 percent of doctors reported high burnout rates in various specialist areas. Factors ranging from administrative burdens to poor organizational management have all contributed to this collective exhaustion. So it’s no wonder the global pandemic has only made the situation worse.
New evidence suggests that COVID has had a serious impact on the mental health of healthcare workers. This will be a challenge – both human and legal – for healthcare leaders in the post-COVID world, and requires support for initiatives that improve workers’ access to mental health care – including dedicated resources for employee benefits .
Employment diversity and inclusion initiatives in the workforce
COVID has already highlighted the disproportionate burden of the disease from racial and ethnic minorities. This inequality has increased the importance of diversifying hiring practices and creating an inclusive environment for healthcare workers. Given the recent national discourse on social and political inequalities, health care leaders need to invest in and support a workforce that reflects the composition of the national population. These initiatives are already taking place in most nationally recognized medical schools and hospitals.
The diversity of healthcare workers will also affect models of care. COVID has already shown the importance of developing culturally competent care. Historical inequalities (such as the Tuskegee study) and persistent inequalities in service delivery (such as structural racism) faced by minorities and underserved patient populations have resulted in decreased trust in the U.S. healthcare system. Healthcare leaders can address these concerns by investing in programs that enable the diversity of the workforce. Several studies highlight how minority patients often do better under the care of minority doctors.
Focus on health and safety measures
From the beginning of the pandemic, healthcare workers were not provided with the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). This failure of leadership resulted in serious moral harm to care providers and, in many cases, clinicians to abandon the practice of medicine altogether. Recent evidence demonstrates the medical need for frontline workers to have access to PPE to prevent infection and ensure care. Healthcare executives need to re-focus on workforce health and safety – not just for medical reasons, but also to avoid legal liability.
Move the care service to the virtual room
COVID has accelerated the transition of health care from personal to telemedicine and improved patient access to health services. Data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) reported that more than nine million Medicare beneficiaries received telemedicine care in the early stages of the pandemic. The number of virtual visits increased weekly from 13,000 pre-COVID to nearly 1.7 million in April, 2020.
Given the rapid adoption of telehealth during COVID, healthcare leaders need to continue investing in capacity building for healthcare workers to make delivery more efficient through virtual modalities, requiring support for increased training and education initiatives.
Integrate data for clinical care
COVID has demonstrated the value of a proactive approach using real-time analytics for data collection and interpretation. The COVID dashboard developed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University has greatly improved the tracking and monitoring of coronavirus cases around the world. Major health systems like Vanderbilt University Medical Center have recognized the potential of such platforms and have already invested in developing capacities in the area to address the health inequalities caused by the pandemic. These data-driven initiatives will continue to grow, allowing health care leaders to make quick assessments and make strategic decisions, both to improve patient care and to assign health care workers within an organization.
As vaccine delivery accelerates, a fair return to the new normal is emerging. Last year as policymakers faced curbing the spread of COVID, they often made decisions that were unjust and hurt underserved populations and healthcare workers. At the time, policy makers had limited information about the transmission dynamics of the coronavirus. Now that they have learned clear lessons from a year of working life under the shadow of the pandemic, they won’t have that excuse – but they have the opportunity to make course corrections.
This is an opinion and analysis article.