Can COVID-19 Restore Humanity in Healthcare?

Prior to the coronavirus, healthcare had moved away from its “care” component. Now, we are seeing unprecedented compassion, concern, and sympathy driving us to take action.

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We are in the middle of fighting the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) across the globe. This has brought an unprecedented focus on healthcare and, in particular, public health, prevention, and the realization that a virus we cannot see can impart unforeseen sickness and fatalities. 

There are visuals of first responders and healthcare workers fighting at the front lines for people’s lives. Formerly abstract terms like national emergency, pandemic, shelter at home, medical supply shortages, antibody testing, N95 masks, and mobile hospitals have real daily meaning.

Many workers are deemed “essential,” meaning they conduct a range of operations and services that are critical to the continued viability of our infrastructure as guided by the Department of Homeland Security acting via the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). Among these essential workers are the physical therapists who are part of the company I lead. It is fair to say, our lives have dramatically altered and will be changed by this in many ways, some permanent. 

We are seeing unprecedented compassion, concern, and sympathy driving us to take action. For example, the US Congress bipartisan support of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and CARES Act, which both passed and were signed by the president in record time.

A significant number of states have passed legislation that relaxes and enhances unemployment filings. Health insurance companies have come together to waive co-pays and fully pay for any COVID-19 treatments. Thirty million-plus Americans without any health insurance have been given comfort that if they get COVID-19 their cost will be paid directly to the hospitals providing treatment. Government regulations regarding patient record keeping and even parts of HIPAA have been waived. Medical students in certain parts of the country graduated early to help fight and keep elderly and other vulnerable people at home.

There is significant relief of mortgages, incredible generosity towards workers on the front lines, and highlighting of physicians and others as both warriors and heroes. Even countries long at odds with each other are sending humanitarian flights filled with needed medical supplies and ventilators. It is humbling and comforting to know that at our greatest time of need, we can come together.

But will the caring last? Will the social or physical distancing strategies have any long-term effects? Will there be renewed interest in the patient–provider relationship? Will documentation and regulatory requirements that deprive providers of face-to-face encounter time with patients be permanently waived? Will physical distancing remain a part of a healthcare visit? Will telehealth play a larger role in healthcare? Will hand sanitation and not touching your face remain a day-to-day priority?

Prior to the coronavirus, healthcare had moved away from its “care” component. In the name of efficiency, healthcare institutions began implementing a number of “process improvements” that required extensive documentation, byzantine regulations, and any number other hoops and ladders. Because there are only so many hours in the day, those “improvements” meant that practitioners had to decrease the amount of time they spent with their patients.

External studies have documented that as much as 25 percent of a provider’s time is now spent on required administrative and insurance tasks instead of care.

That makes healthcare worse for everyone. 

One of the worst side effects of this shift is that the time practitioners do spend with patients often feels rushed or cursory. All too often, providers focus on techniques and solutions instead of listening, empathy, and communication. Yet research shows that these “soft” skills have a significant impact on patients’ results. When patients feel “care,” they often experience better physical outcomes. 

My sincere hope is that part of this time’s legacy will be that it restored humanity in healthcare. That caregivers of all types will have experienced renewal and place value on high-quality connections, empathetic listening, and emotional handling. That a profession once reduced to the perfunctory and routine will drive record numbers of students into healthcare who want to pursue such meaningful and impactful work. That respect, integrity, and high regard will return to the profession in overwhelming ways. That all of this will result in the enhancement of clinical outcomes by the combination of scientific evidence in medical interventions and the science of those transportable skills of positive psychology to the betterment of healthcare. That every day, each provider will remember something special—they were indeed called to care.

For more advice on restoring humanity to healthcare, you can find Called to Care on Amazon.

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