Based on an article by Matt Schur from the AMT Pulse, Fall 2021.
There’s no way around it: The pandemic triggered unthinkable tragedies—untold wreckage on physical and mental well-being, tremendous job and economic losses and, most devastatingly, an overwhelming loss of life.
But for all the devastation, some good emerged. The pandemic shined a spotlight on healthcare inequities, challenging people’s notions of how society and systems treat our most vulnerable populations. Telehealth boomed, both saving lives and expanding access to healthcare. Plus, a funny thing happened with all the social distancing—there were plenty of instances of friends and families coming closer together, the most intimate of relationships forging even stronger bonds.
While we can’t recover all that we lost in the last year, COVID-19 does offer a chance to build a better future—if we can avoid past mistakes.
A Central Plan
In May, Time magazine polled 73 experts and thought leaders from an array of fields such as infectious diseases, public health and technology to determine the most important strategies to mitigate future health crises. Two of the top priorities were ensuring a strong federal response that local governments can rely upon for guidance and creating a more robust and transparent system for raising alarm about emerging global health threats.
Transparency from leadership is especially crucial, says John Barry, author, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. Barry, who lives in New Orleans, is also a professor at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and served as an advisor to former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama on pandemic preparedness and response.
The countries that had greater success against the virus, such as South Korea and Germany, were also the most upfront, Barry says. “In both cases, the Chief of State was extremely transparent: They told people what was happening, what people can expect to happen in the future, what the government was going to do in the future and what the government might ask people to do,” Barry says.
A Call to Arms
In a truly global society, outbreaks can spread to every corner of the world. To stave off the worst of the next pandemic, the country has to elevate its preparedness. “In healthcare, we always need to be trained for the worst thing that could happen,” says Carlo Ledesma, MT (AMT), MS, SH, QLS, Program Director, medical laboratory technology, Rose State College, Oklahoma City. He is also a Medical Laboratory Scientist with the Asset Procurement Group and is earning his doctorate in clinical laboratory science from the University of Kansas Medical Center. “We weren’t prepared for the pandemic,” Ledesma says. “Here in Oklahoma, we know tornadoes happen all the time, so we plan for tornadoes. We don’t plan for earthquakes because we don’t live in California. But we need to. We need to have better disaster preparedness for every aspect of life.”
One of the most immediate needs, Ledesma says, is bolstering the number of healthcare professionals, especially with an aging workforce and the number of burnt out employees from the last year. “We need staffing: doctors, nurses, lab technicians, medical assistants,” Ledesma says. “We need more support to prevent this from happening over again. It’s unavoidable, but we can minimize the effects of it.”
Breaking Down Barriers
Inequality permeates throughout healthcare, and the pandemic only highlighted the country’s stark divisions. When compared to white people, non-Hispanic Black people were twice as likely to die from COVID-19; Hispanic people were 2.3 times as likely to die; and American Indian and Alaska natives were 2.4 times as likely to die, according to the CDC.
Disparities were revealed in subtler ways, too, whether it was the ability to work remotely or the privilege to have essentials delivered to a home. Throughout the year, the pandemic highlighted all the factors that determine a person’s health, including race and ethnicity, but also employment, location, income, access to healthcare, education and more. Collectively, these factors are often referred to as the social determinants of health. “In the past, social determinants of health were only talked about in academic circles,” says Dr. Pablo
Rodriguez, MD, Physician and CEO, Women’s Care, Warwick, Rhode Island. “Now, because of the pandemic, the media, political establishment and philanthropists are looking at those more seriously. This bodes well for the future because we’re going to be working toward alleviating some determinants to be better prepared for future pandemics.” Addressing social determinants requires action at many different levels, but one of the linchpins, according to Dr. Rodriguez, will be shifting to a more proactive approach to care.
The Benefits and Limits of Telehealth
Telehealth exploded last year. That was driven in part by necessity: Healthcare facilities were strained from treating COVID-19 patients, and the more people stayed at home, the better—for patients and providers alike. But elevated use remains: By February 2021, there were 38 times as many telehealth appointments than before the pandemic, according to McKinsey analysis.
As a fortunate byproduct, telehealth is increasing access to care. When barriers are removed, such as travel distance, parking, the need for babysitters and more, people have the ability to seek out more care. “There are lots of reasons why people don’t need to be seen in person, and telehealth can be critical for people who have trouble getting to a clinic, whether they’re elderly, disabled, have mental health issues, transportation problems, are living in a rural area or something else,” says Christine Kezell, RMA (AMT), Medical Assistant, Oregon Health and Science University, Portland, Oregon.
She has personally benefited from this move to remote healthcare. After surgery prevented Kezell from going into her clinic, she was able to work from home for a few weeks while still receiving pay. “It can be so beneficial,” she says of telehealth. “For workers and patients as well.”
The pandemic’s toll on mental health was immense: 41.1% of adults reported symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder in January 2021, compared to 11% pre-pandemic, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“Mental health came to the forefront in a way that we had been pushing toward but not quite reached,” Ledesma says. He was among the many who had a stressful and challenging year: “I never thought I would seek a therapist. I’ve always been this outgoing, go-getter kind of person. When everything was abruptly locked down, I was working from home, teaching from home, learning from home. I was tired of this—you can’t go out, can’t see friends or family.”
After all the lockdowns and social distancing, we yearned for human connection, Dr. Rodriguez says— even valuing the smallest of physical interactions like shaking hands. “It’s something that I miss tremendously,” he says. “As a Puerto Rican, we are always making contact. For us, conversations are a contact sport. I'm looking forward to the time when I can go back to that normality.”
Ledesma’s biggest takeaway from the entirety of the pandemic is much the same: “No man is an island,” he says. “We all really need interaction.”
While isolation gripped much of the nation, for others, the small cohorts and pods of intimate family or friends became a haven in tough times. For Denise Sumner, the remote work and isolation brought her much closer to her mother and daughter. Sumner, AHI (AMT), RMA (AMT), MBA, MHC, BS, CPC, is a Remote Faculty Development Specialist at Unitek College and lives in Longwood, Florida.
In a way, quarantining worked out perfectly for her, she says. Working from home accommodates her personality well. “I’m not around a lot of people who are negative. I’m just around love in my house, so it’s more peaceful. If I get stressed out, I go out in the backyard and relax. When you’re in a building, you can’t do that because people are always in and out of your office. Now I just feel at peace.”
The family did what a lot of us did last year: They played games and went on walks and baked cookies. Games were especially big, everything from Monopoly and Jenga to Scrabble, a particular favorite. Was it a lost year? It was. And Sumner was no stranger to the personal tragedies of COVID-19, as a family member died due to the virus. But to spend so much time growing closer with her mother and daughter—well, that feels a lot like winning, too.
This blog article is a shorter version of the full story published in the AMT Pulse, an award-winning publication for members.