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COVID Puts Massive Strain on Struggling U.S. Healthcare System

System Ill Equipped to Handle Unpredictable, Large-Scale Health Crisis

Simply put, our healthcare system was not designed to handle a pandemic, which requires rapid mobilization of resources on an enormous scale. Nor were healthcare workers prepared for the physical and psychological demands of tending to an entire population at risk.

In the U.S., more than 900 healthcare workers have died of COVID and the toll is rising. Personal protective equipment (PPE) — respirator masks, gown, and gloves — is in short supply, forcing some to reuse equipment or work without it.

As disturbing as the death toll is, it’s not all healthcare workers must cope with. They report increased levels of anxiety and depression. The increased need for more or longer shifts conflicts with obligations to family and shrinks already scarce down time, causing further trauma.

Fatigue, fear of infection, a sense of helplessness, the burden of life and death decision-making, and the lack of social support have created a toxic environment for healthcare workers that is sapping their vitality, while showing no signs of improving.

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As System Flounders Many Services Disrupted

Widespread fear of infection combined with efforts by healthcare providers to deliver care while protecting patients and medical staff have caused a drop in the use of nearly all medical services.

  • Ambulatory visits have declined nearly 60 percent since the start of the pandemic
  • Primary care practices report a 70-percent drop in use of services

Patients with serious health problems such as cancer and heart disease are delaying critical, life-saving procedures.

The joint economic and population health impact of the pandemic is unlikely to improve quickly even once it’s under control. According to strategy consultancy EY, over 60 percent of consumers are concerned about seeking medical care after current restrictions are lifted. And almost a third will seek care only if they have a serious health issue. Meanwhile…

Many Face the Largest Pandemic in a Century with No Health Insurance

As crippling financial losses threaten the viability of a substantial number of hospitals and office practices, especially rural and safety-net providers, unemployment remains at near-Great Depression levels. And, right now, about half of Americans receive health coverage through their employers.

This reckoning puts into stark relief the fact that underrepresented minorities (URMs) and other historically marginalized populations have suffered disproportionately not only from COVID-19 but from nearly every common health condition for decades.

Cracks in the dike of American healthcare weren’t created by COVID, but the pandemic has revealed deficiencies that affect every part of the system: healthcare providers, payers, and consumers.

Improved Collective Action Required to Protect Public Health

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Our healthcare system cannot fix itself. State and local public health authorities must build the capacity to implement basic disease-control measures at scale, such as screening, testing, contact tracing, and isolation of the infected. These steps can create COVID-free facilities that can simultaneously prevent disease and restore confidence our healthcare system.
 
They must accelerate the use of telemedicine and remote patient monitoring, which allows healthcare providers to safely continue providing care at a distance while accommodating increased client demand and reducing hospital overcrowding. In terms of screening, taking a patient’s temperature is one of the most necessary yet labor-intensive tasks facing nurses and medical staff. Nurses are supposed to check temperature every four hours, but, under their enormous workloads, twice a day is more common. This infrequency means a sudden fever spike will likely be missed, putting patients and healthcare workers at risk of a looming viral infection.