April 1, 2020 / By DAVID SHAYWITZ
COVID-19 has altered how we think about health and medicine — but will these changes outlast the pandemic?
Gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic, we now wash our hands obsessively; hand sanitizer has been out of stock for weeks. We are grateful for the hospitals in our communities that take care of us if we’re struck down, and for telemedicine approaches that try to keep us healthy and out of harm’s way. We’re hopeful drug companies will come up with something to fight this terrible virus and that data scientists will be able to warn us where the disease will strike next.
But, to paraphrase the Shirelles, will we still feel this way tomorrow? Will the health behaviors and attitudes we developed during the pandemic persist after the danger has passed — and should they?
Let’s start with hospitals. Pre-COVID-19, there was a big push to reduce the total number of hospital beds in the country, especially in community hospitals. In 2014, for example, Cleveland Clinic CEO Dr. Toby Cosgrove said the country had too many hospital beds, noting an occupancy rate of about two-thirds. That remained steady over the next several years.
Hospitals pushed back, of course, arguing that they provided critical value to the community. But the megatrends were clear. As Dr. Penny Dash, a McKinsey senior partner, put it in 2019: “We probably need fewer hospitals.” The reason, Dash continued, was an evolution in need from acute to chronic care, and the opportunity to provide more of this care outside of hospitals, in settings more convenient for patients. Dash explained,
We are having a different burden of disease than the burden of disease that we would’ve seen 20 years ago and certainly 50 years ago and 100 years ago. What we are now seeing is that people don’t tend to die as children of infectious diseases. They don’t tend to die during their adult years of infectious diseases, they don’t tend to have accidents as much. If they have a heart attack, we can usually treat it and cure it and people survive. As a result, the diseases that we’re seeing are chronic diseases associated with aging populations, but also with poor lifestyle behaviors.