By Brennan Keifer
Elm Staff Writer
The United States has been one of the hardest hit countries by the COVID-19 pandemic. As of Sept. 17, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed over six million cases and nearly 200,000 deaths in the U.S. alone.
With the virus still raging, healthcare experts have begun speculating about how COVID-19 may affect the future of the American healthcare system — and how the virus has already changed it.
One of the biggest changes COVID-19 has had on healthcare is the mainstreaming of telemedicine. Also known as telehealth, it is the use of phones or webcams to receive clinical consultations in your home.
“[Only] one in ten Americans were taking advantage of telehealth in the pre-pandemic era,” healthcare reporter for Vox, Dylan Scott, said.
Analysts from Frost and Sullivan, a market research company based in the U.S., also believe the number of virtual consultations will exceed one billion by the end of the year, with the use of telehealth expected to grow even after the pandemic.
“There’s been a realization from clinicians that actually [telehealth] is a reasonable method of communicating and engaging with patients,” Simon Kydd, WSP’s head of healthcare in the UK, said.
According to Kydd, the use of telemedicine will increase in the next few years, and eventually in-person and telehealth consultations will be split equally.
Telehealth is especially convenient for those who have difficulty making trips to see their physicians and provides a safer alternative for elderly patients, who are at greater risk of contracting infectious diseases.
“Virtual appointments improve access to care for remote populations, but they are also much more convenient for…physicians themselves,” said Dr. Stephen Duckett, health program director at the Graham Institute in Melbourne, Australia.
To support telehealth usage, the Trump Administration made telemedicine more affordable, declaring that “Medicare and Medicaid would pay the same rates for virtual visits as for in-office appointments.” Many private insurance companies have also expanded coverage of telemedicine.
According to Scott, this new coverage isn’t expected to change after the pandemic, but rather serve as a “permanent paradigm shift” in a post-COVID-19 world.
The increase of telemedicine is generally seen as beneficial amongst both professionals and patients. However, amid COVID-19, many have begun to doubt the reliability of the U.S. healthcare system.
A survey of 2,201 adults conducted by the Morning Consult Poll shows that 26% of those surveyed are “much more likely” to support universal healthcare because of COVID-19. An additional 15% said they are “somewhat more likely.”
Although a small poll, Michael Tennent of The New American said this as proof that “crises, whether real or perceived, usually redound to the state’s benefit.”
Others have criticized the lack in uniformity of the U.S.’s healthcare system, such as the decentralized structure of U.S. healthcare.
“We don’t really have a system,” Lynn Blewett, professor of health policy and management at the University of Minnesota, said. “The term ‘system’ implies a unified plan, and the patchwork of public and private care providers and millions of uninsured people that currently characterize American medicine isn’t that.”
According to Eric Schneider, senior vice president for policy and research at The Commonwealth Fund, decentralized healthcare is a primary reason the U.S. has been overwhelmed by COVID-19.
Because the U.S. is such a large country, each state is responsible for funding and operating its own public health and disease surveillance system, making it slower to pursue proper testing, detect cases, and begin contact tracing.
“As this pandemic started, the consequence of that decentralization was a failure to understand the magnitude of the problem,” Schneider said.
However, according to Scott, “the U.S. Congress tend to invest more money preparedness after a crisis like [COVID-19],” allowing for quicker action and emergency responses should similar disasters strike in the future.
Though more funds may contribute to emergency preparedness after COVID-19, Larry Levitt, executive vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation, believes this will only be temporary.
“At least for a while, there may be lasting investments in public health, until memory of the pandemic fades and we go back to underfunding it,” Levitt said.
While there have been some changes, such as telemedicine and the potential for better emergency preparedness, it’s unlikely that COVID-19 will reshape the U.S. healthcare system as a whole.
“I think one factor that will determine the permanency of these changes is how long this disruption continues,” Cynthia Cox, director of the Peterson-Kaiser Health System Tracker, said. “Many of the biggest coverage expansions both in the US and in similar countries happened in the context of wars and social upheavals, as well as financial crises.”
As the switch to a universal healthcare plan remains doubtful, we are likely to see some lasting effects of the pandemic on the U.S. healthcare system, as well as a rethinking of how healthcare operates in the future.
As the future structure of the U.S. healthcare system remains uncertain, we will likely continue to see the effects of the pandemic on the system for years to come.
Featured Photo caption: With COVID-19 continuing to spread across the country, medical experts are looking towards the future of the national healthcare system – and what it could possibly look like for patients. Photo Courtesy of Hush Naidoo.