Almost every day someone asks us, “When are things going to go back to normal?” We know what they mean.
People want to know when they can go out with friends, gather with family and leave the masks at home.
Those questions are difficult to answer and depend on many factors but most importantly the answers are connected to how quickly we can immunize a large proportion of our communities.
Not only can we not predict when things will return to normal, we honestly can’t say things ever will go back to exactly the way they were. Nowhere do we feel this as acutely as we do in healthcare.
When the pandemic began, and people were staying home for safety, it created a secondary concern for us. Our patients still needed care–acute care, preventive care, check-ups–but they weren’t always coming into hospitals or clinics to get it. For us, that necessity was the mother of innovation. We accelerated telehealth capabilities by 10 years in 10 weeks. Video visits. Phone visits. We worked with what we had to ensure that our patients’ care wasn’t neglected because of the pandemic.
We’re almost a year into this devastating pandemic. Our clinics are open, our hospitals are full, yet our virtual-care visits continue to increase. Patients like them. Providers like them. After the pandemic is over, more robust virtual care will endure as possibly the most significant change to healthcare.
Our patients weren’t the only ones at home during the pandemic. Many of our employees were too. For many nonclinical staff, remote work was a natural change. Surprisingly, we found many clinical tasks could be done remotely as well. This challenge showed how much our employees were capable of no matter where they were working. While health systems like ours will always be available to provide high quality, in-person care, employees can also provide remarkable care and do great work remotely, and we will strive to provide that flexibility to our workforce in the years to come.
During this pandemic, so many of the visible changes have been safety measures. Safety has always been a priority, of course, but this pandemic made us re-examine everything about our facilities and our protocols. We changed the way we cleaned, dressed and moved within our hospitals. We even changed parts of the hospitals and clinics themselves.
Masks and other PPE will be carefully considered not just when caring for patients with infectious diseases but patients with compromised immune systems. Ventilation has been altered in parts of our facilities, permanently improving airflow in areas to keep our staff and patients safer. While these changes were made in a crisis, many of them improve the care we provide and will live on.
Maybe most importantly, this pandemic shone a spotlight on public health. We’ve been implementing mass vaccinations, combating misinformation and standing up for communities disproportionately affected by both COVID-19 and the scourge of racism. These are big challenges that require collaboration between health systems, government and community organizations, and they won’t all go away when the pandemic is over.
This pandemic clearly showed that health systems have a responsibility far beyond our walls. When the public was looking to us for answers on COVID-19 prevention, testing, care and vaccines, we shared what we knew when we knew it. In the future, when those questions turn to health equity, research and preventive care, we hope health systems will listen to the needs and concerns of their communities and respond with leadership, collaboration and transparency.
We’ve lost so much to this pandemic, but now, with vaccines being administered to many more people every day, we are also cognizant of all the things we have gained that will benefit our staff, our patients and our communities for years to come.