Imagining a post-pandemic world

May 29, 2020 / By Katie Christensen

Our world has been turned upside down, our economy is struggling, and many are sheltering in place amid the coronavirus pandemic, causing us to interact differently with loved ones and our broader social and economic circles. I wonder if any of the changes we’re experiencing will be long-term and if so, what it will mean from a healthcare perspective? Our healthcare institutions are currently under enormous pressure. Think of an outstretched rubber band. What happens when you let go? In what scenarios will the rubber band return to its original shape (pre-pandemic practices)? Are there any scenarios where it will stay stretched, in a shape representing a “new normal”?

Does healthcare delivery need to be “in person”?

By all accounts telemedicine is here to stay. This long overdue application of technology offers patients the convenience of at-home care, eliminating risks that come with driving, as well as the danger of sitting in “petri dish” clinics exposed to whatever is ailing the other patients in the waiting room. Telemedicine is not a new concept, but the coronavirus has accelerated its use.

To what extent will trips to the emergency room be permanently reduced?

One can only hope that the same convenience offered by telemedicine minimizes unnecessary trips to the Emergency Room. For the safety of patients and ED staff (see above petri dish analogy), less concentrated interaction onsite in the ED is a good thing. Some ED visits will likely be replaced by telemedicine and others may occur in a more appropriate (read: safe) setting, which is a very good thing.

What about social distancing?

It will take a LONG time before we gather and socialize as easily as we used to. Although I’m doubtful that masks will be the norm permanently, they will certainly be more commonplace. Before COVID-19, wearing a mask was a statement of an individual’s risk, typically indicating the presence of an immunocompromised condition. Now, wearing a mask is encouraged and even mandated in some areas, along with social distancing. What will this mean long-term for business environments, schools, and entertainment venues, all of which are strongly linked to personal relationships and/or human interaction? What does this mean for the development of social networks going forward? We are social individuals who rely on interaction to establish personal relationships. How will this change us going forward? How will we fully regain a sense of community?

Will we see an impact on long-term mental and physical health

According to an article in a recent issue of the Harvard Gazette:

“Late last month, as the full weight of the COVID-19 crises was settling on the country’s shoulders, more than one in four American adults met the criteria that psychologists use to diagnose serious mental distress and illness. That represents a roughly 700 percent increase from pre-pandemic data collected in 2018.

In addition to the toll on our mental health, isolation, increased stress and anxiety are not good for our overall physical health. Depression represents a co-morbid condition which, at a minimum, delays the rate of improvement of a physical ailment. Even worse, it can introduce health complications.

I am hopeful that those without co-morbid conditions will rebound post-coronavirus, but I wonder about the healthcare trajectory of those who were already immunocompromised. Will there be  inflated rates of disease progression?

Will communities be safer?

Data indicates that the crime rate has plummeted as apparently, criminals are staying home as well. Traffic accidents have also decreased with fewer cars on the roads in urban centers:

“Coronavirus stay-at-home orders that went into effect on March 20 have reduced vehicle collisions on California roadways by roughly half, according to a UC Davis survey”

Not all is well though. Although criminal activity has dropped, more time in the home has resulted in an uptick in reporting of domestic abuse.

Although I have no hopes for a permanently reduced crime rate, I do expect altered traffic patterns in the future, which I hope will lead to lower accident/traffic deaths and healthier air due to reduced auto emissions. Ultimately, human nature when the virus subsides. Crime rates will increase, eating out will return and we will once again use our cars to get places. However, it’s my glass-half-full prediction that  our society will experience changes that can be considered positive. 

For readers interested in exploring more on this topic, here are a few suggested articles:

Politico: Coronavirus Will Change the World Permanently. Here’s How.

Pew Research Center: Most Americans Say Coronavirus Outbreak Has Impacted Their Lives

CBS News/60 Minutes: What will be the new normals after the coronavirus pandemic?

The rubber band will snap back, but it will have a slightly different shape. For those of us who make it through the pandemic without serious illness, this difference may be good for our individual health. Long-term societal changes brought about by COVID-19 may also benefit our healthcare system. I will not be as quick to order wings and fast food, I will be more motivated to carry (and use) hand sanitizer, and I believe my health will improve through more effective care delivery in safer, more efficient settings.

In the meantime, please stay well and wash those hands.

Katie Christensen is a healthcare consulting manager within the Population and Payment Solutions group of 3M Health Information Systems.

During a pandemic, healthcare information is gathered, studied, and published rapidly by scientists, epidemiologists and public health experts without the usual processes of review. Our understanding is rapidly evolving and what we understand today will change over time. Definitive studies will be published long after the fact. 3M Inside Angle bloggers share our thoughts and expertise based on currently available information.