The Medical Futurist | 16 min | 26 January 2021
2020 has brought previously unseen challenges upon humankind. A virus that, due to globalisation, spread at an unprecedented speed, stormed the entire planet and there is only one thing that can stop it as it is now: a vaccine. And as I wrote in The Medical Futurist vaccine pledge, if you worry about the long-term consequences (which no data indicate for now after having tested the vaccine on tens of thousands of people and vaccinating already millions), you might want to wait out. But then we’ll be in lockdown for years.
Over the past year several lockdowns have taken place. We adopted new habits, learned and worked through videoconferences, made social distancing an everyday habit and masks a fashion item. But we all hate these, don’t we? So once we have a chance to end the pandemic, I’d say we should go for it; and with several trustworthy and reviewed vaccines available worldwide, the race for vaccination has begun.
In April 2020, we collected what will be the most specific changes we would need to bear even after the pandemic has gone. Almost a year on and the virus still upon us, we are revisiting those statements and having a look at all those things we expected and forecast: what will surely change, what has the chance to change and what should change in the future. Our 2021 updates are clearly marked within the topics.
What will surely change
We’ve seen it all during this global public health crisis; overwhelmed hospitals forcing patients to sleep on the floor; mounting fear of being in proximity to others; but also the importance of a robust healthcare system. As a consequence of our collective and individual experiences throughout the pandemic, things will change in the healthcare landscape. Below we discuss three of the most significant changes we’ll experience.
1. An unprecedented toll on healthcare workers
What we wrote:
During this global tragedy, it’s not only the economy or the population that’s being affected but also the healthcare professionals on the frontlines. The latter are enduring extreme work conditions and sacrifices in order to help the infected. Despite a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), they show up to work using DIY-solutions like ski goggles and bin bags with a high risk of being infected. Many are working overtime and witnessed patient after patient succumb to the disease.
“The anxiety of knowing you might be at risk when you’re doing your job can be very challenging for health care workers,” says Terri Rebmann, a nurse researcher and director of the Institute for Biosecurity at Saint Louis University. “It’s physically and mentally draining.” This will lead to an inevitable spike in burnouts among the healthcare staff. Before the novel coronavirus, some estimated nearly half of the world’s 10 million physicians had symptoms of burnout. Now imagine after COVID-19…
More than burnouts, we will see front liners with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After this pandemic subsides, we will have to brace ourselves for the aftermath on medical professionals on the frontlines
This is one of the saddest and most depriving moments in the history of medicine. All of the above are still underway: medical professionals being emotionally drained, leaving the field, having mental health issues and burnout. Institutions, governments and even the direct management of medical facilities realised this way too late and are now rushing to provide support to staff with direct counselling, online support or via applications – with mixed results. And once the vaccination brings down case numbers, patients with chronic illnesses will return to the system and meet a totally burned out, exhausted personnel.
2. Diminishing trust in the globalized world
What we wrote:
In the pre-pandemic globalized world, we enjoyed a certain level of trust we mostly took for granted. We could travel almost without limitations, meet people without restrictions and order products worldwide. This will simply change after billions of people had to stay indoors for weeks.
We will not be able to travel that freely or enjoy the supply chains of the world so easily. We will think twice before going somewhere or meeting someone. The pandemic is already exacerbating signs of social anxiety and agoraphobia. Regaining trust takes time and these trends will take place for months after lockdowns are lifted.
By now we would all happily choose to stay at home “for weeks” as written above; in reality, we have been as good as closed down for months. Working from the office, meeting our besties, planning a vacation and travelling freely, grabbing a coffee or going to the gym still seem quite far. And although we have positive takeaways from online meetings (we can be much more effective), home or office is still not a choice but a situation.
Moreover, with so much time spent online, we now have multiple generations glued to the screens and sometimes unknowingly spreading misinformation limitlessly. The next task in this regard will be how to combat fake news, fight anti-vaxxers and gain our lives back again.
3. Focus on the healthcare system
What we wrote:
It’s tragic how the pandemic highlighted the shortcomings of healthcare systems worldwide. The overburdened hospitals need an upgrade on every level from their infrastructures to their processes. These will be needed to ensure a safe environment for the personnel and patients, as well to better cope with any emergency situations.
For example, one of the reasons speculated for Germany’s comparatively low death rate is its good intensive care situation. Digital health showed its aptitude to deal with such a crisis. We can expect to see many governments put more focus on healthcare. They can adopt similar strategies employed by other countries that better managed the crisis. As people in the frontlines of the fight witnessed, with inefficient healthcare systems, we will not be able to handle the next outbreak.
We have seen enormous growth on the technological side of healthcare, experts say the pandemic has advanced the sector by years. We dedicated multiple articles to the topic but you can just start with How COVID-19 Catalysed Digital Health Trends.
However, the cultural transformation was not as fast as the technological one. And in order to benefit from the technological growth we experienced, healthcare participants must leapfrog cultural transformation. With all our channels, outputs and keynotes, The Medical Futurist is on this mission.
What can change
1. Get your new travel document: the immunity passport
What we wrote:
Such a passport will function in a similar way to how passports and visas work. If you are certified to be immune to the virus, you will get a pass to resume your daily routine, and if not, you will have to stay indoors. The U.K. government is already considering it and other countries might follow suit.
This sounds a lot like a divide between the haves and the have-nots and is the subject of ongoing debates. Some might voluntarily go out to catch the virus in the hopes of gaining immunity to it. There will be a lingering fear of unemployment due to being forced to stay in isolation without such a passport. Moreover, testing for immunity will inevitably result in false positives (people incorrectly identified as immune), undermining the efficacy of such a passport altogether.
It is almost certain that there will be a vaccination passport of some kind. It would provide safety for travellers and hosts alike, and it seems that governments feel the privacy concerns raised soon enough by NGOs, experts and the media. As for its form, it’d just be great if we didn’t have to carry an actual booklet with us (take note, Israel), but had a more 21st-century solution. For example, Common pass aims to provide an international health pass solution, although it is not yet accessible in most parts of the world. This pass, backed by the World Economic Forum and other organisations, aims to provide a safe, independent solution for nations, containing updated lab results and vaccination records.
2. Surveillance as an ongoing public health measure
What we wrote:
No one wants to be surveilled, but what if it’s for the greater good? That’s what certain governments had to resort to in order to facilitate contact tracing. Countries from Germany through Israel to Singapore are using phone tracking data to locate and alert those who might be infected. South Korea went the extra mile by using CCTV footage and bank transactions in addition to phone use in its tracing process.
This could lead to certain governments, in particular totalitarian ones, to erase a layer of privacy from citizens’ life. It brings a whole new dimension to privacy and ethical issues like we’ve seen in South Korea. But under the guise of another major public health crisis, such measures could become the norm
Contact tracing turned out to be a failed attempt. If it was developed, it came with huge delays; countries and even systems did it independently – not to mention the issues with privacy and security. Ultimately we didn’t have to share everything with our governments and as such, it’s good. Not that our phones and apps don’t report everything they know about us.
By 2030 we’ll have many changes we apply now due to COVID-19 – including wearing a mask
3. Brand-new habits
What we wrote:
Awareness of personal and public hygiene measures saw a surge thanks to the contagion. Health authorities are advocating for regular handwashing with soap for at least 20 seconds. Social distancing measures are in place. People are getting used to wearing facemasks for grocery shopping.
These new-formed habits could linger way after lockdowns are lifted, leading to overall better hygiene. We might see people wearing masks wherever they go and unintentionally be more cautious around our elderly. Dr. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease in the U.S., even thinks that we should never shake hands again. Vulcan salutation, anyone
So here it is: everyone has a mask, a spare mask, and even a replacement of the spare one. We all have already hand washed these, too, and sometimes forgotten to take it with us. The New Norm includes refraining from the handshake and staying away from sports competitions, but what comes thereafter? Will we be able to stand close to each other? Will we sanitise everything? Will we wave at each other at the end of meetings? We’ll see, but it’ll take a long time until we adjust.
What should change
1. Artificial intelligence as a necessary tool
What we wrote:
We have stressed the need to implement artificial intelligence in the healthcare setting for years, but the novel coronavirus’ damage highlighted this need even more. We saw how an A.I. platform assisted in sending out the first alerts of the outbreak. Algorithms are used to help screen for those potentially affected. A.I. can help hospitals manage their resources. It’s even in use to speed up vaccine research.
These developments go on to show that A.I. will help us better prepare for the next public health crisis. These algorithms aren’t solutions in themselves but rather tools aiding professionals to perfect their craft.
We can not even begin to list the multiple facets of A.I. in healthcare that appeared in the past 12 months (but we created an entire database on FDA-approved medical devices)! From A.I. supporting healthcare logistics, drug discovery, to assisting in medical decisions or analysing the ever-increasing volume of medical information and research data, and even improving working conditions in hospitals. The possible uses of artificial intelligence are nearly limitless, and we’re only scratching the surface with the examples above. What is certain is that with the right use, A.I. will be a platform for every single person in healthcare to take healing, patient care and prevention to the next level.
2. A shift in the point-of-care
The importance of digital health solutions was made clear during these challenging times. They are ready-made options to bring healthcare to patients, rather than the other way round. Telemedicine’s use skyrocketed. We have a whole article dedicated to digital health apps helping people during the pandemic. Devices like digital stethoscopes, portable ECG monitors and digital otoscopes can be used at home and the results shared remotely with doctors.
These eliminate doctor-patient visits whenever it’s avoidable and also help reduce the risk of cross-contamination. Such devices should become commonplace, shifting the point-of-care to the patient.
In 2020, more doctor-patient appointments were digital than live. The rise of telemedicine, at-home lab tests, home sensors, COVID testing devices (so many, PATH even made a dashboard), and, of course, the zillions of apps of all kinds from work, efficiency, meditation to sports, finance, conspiracy and all, are all the results of this change. And most of these solutions, lifestyle choices and working methods will stay with us in the future, slowly and hopefully bringing the cultural adaptation we so often talk about in healthcare.
3. Sustainable solutions
What we wrote:
If this pandemic taught us anything, it’s that our life (as it used to be) is not sustainable for our planet. We all had to experiment with digital solutions, be it virtual meetings for work, digital education for students and virtual events instead of in-person conferences. These proved not only to be effective but also an environmentally-friendly way to operate in a connected world.
We are not saying everything is going digital, but it makes sense to make digital anything that’s not more efficient in real life, if possible. Telemedicine and digital health tech already show their aptitude to make this a possibility. They just need to be adopted on a large scale.
We are not doing very well in terms of sustainability. But we should. “Rising global temperatures, coupled with the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, are predicted to cause changes in the seasonality, geography and intensity of infectious diseases” – wrote Lia Patsavoudi, professor of biology at the University of West Attica in Greece, and a volunteer at Greenpeace. She added, “disrupting those ecosystems can make us more susceptible to getting diseases.” Meaning, fighting climate change is crucial in the lives of future pandemics. The planet breathed a little, but we may not have learned enough from all this.
There is light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel
The COVID-19 saga will come to an end without a doubt. We will get back to our lives and visit the great outdoors. But that life will be significantly different. Moreover, reaching that point will depend on our current actions. We must respect social distancing measures and reduce the spread of the disease. And, have no doubts, we must have ourselves vaccinated in order to be able to return to our lives – well, at least as close to it as possible.
Only then will we experience the post-pandemic world.