Covid-19: Opportunities In a Pandemic
Author’s note: The Covid-19 series is a series of articles related to the current pandemic.
The Covid-19 pandemic is arguably this generation’s equivalent of a world war. When the disease was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the World Health Organization (WHO) in January 2020, countries responded by closing its borders, hoping it would stop the spread. But the disease moved faster than expected and inevitably, movement restrictions were implemented. Some countries went for the hardest option, locking down the whole country while some preferred a more gradual approach. But the effect of this was the same, the economy took a beating. Industries like tourism, travel and leisure were decimated, unemployment rose like a rocket and economists are now predicting a global recession worse than 2008.
Healthcare systems are the focus of this war. Hospital beds (including ventilator) capacity, lab testing capabilities, personal protective equipment (PPE) supply and human resources were all stretched to the limit as countries struggled to cope with the outbreak. However, I believe the pandemic might have given us several golden opportunities to re-examine our healthcare system and with the correct actions, strengthen it for the future.
Driver of innovation
The lack of PPE was one of the most pressing issues in this war against Covid-19. Countries struggled to procure this essential equipment for medical front-liners as demand soared all over the world. When global supply chains were disrupted due to the border restrictions, the problem grew bigger. This spurred the fashion industry, big and small independent brands alike to produce them. Communities banded together as well, creating a small local supply chain of PPE for the hospitals.
Ventilators, a machine that is used to take over the breathing process of a patient while the lungs heal, were also high in demand. Medical device companies continued to make these, but other commercial companies like carmakers and even engineering faculties at educational institutions stepped up to fill the gap. Some of the designs were even better and more efficient than the ones in the market.
I believe this is an untapped potential for the future. The pandemic necessitated the unorthodox method of producing this life-saving equipment and this shouldn’t be done only during crises. PPEs and ventilators will continue to be in high demand as the pandemic is still ongoing. Countries can decentralised global supply chains of such equipment to local manufacturers. This not only ensures adequate supply but also help stimulate the local economy and create much-needed jobs.
One of the healthcare tools that has accelerated in use was telemedicine. In the past, telemedicine was used sparingly, mostly due to push back from physicians, or issues arising from infrastructure or data privacy. But in the new normal of social distancing, telemedicine has bloomed. Moving forward, countries should build a toolkit for hospitals to expand their telemedicine capabilities. The same issues will remain; patient suitability, disease suitability and infrastructure support but the pandemic has encouraged physicians and administrators to work together and create a safe, reliable telemedicine framework.
Innovation is not uncommon in the healthcare industry but the pandemic made us look at alternative pathways to find solutions. It can be said that the traditional process of innovation itself has been re-innovated.
Lean operations are an operational concept common in many industries. It focuses on delivering product or services instantaneously, with perfect quality and low cost. The pioneer of this concept is Toyota Motor Company, a car manufacturing company but has since been practised in many other industries.
Hospitals and healthcare systems can benefit widely from lean operations. Operating costs grow higher each year and there are always discussions on how to lower cost and maintain high service quality. Lean operations are perfect for hospitals as high quality is a default requirement and administrators are always looking to lower cost. An example of lean operations in a hospital could a dedicated ‘patient relationship management’ system, similar to a ‘customer relationship management’ in other industries, to effectively manage the flow of patients from patient registration, clinical consult to picking up medication at the pharmacy. An integrated IT system could process the registration, assign and manage the queue system so that patients do not have to wait for a long time before the consultation. Once the physician prescribes the medication in the system, the pharmacy will automatically process the request and medication will be ready for pick up once the patient arrives. Again, this reduces waiting time and also the need for waiting lounges which could be used for other purposes.
The core of lean operations is to reduce ‘waste’ in the system by managing the flow more efficiently. As many experts have warned, the new normal is social distancing and to reduce crowding. Lean operations can achieve this, thus reducing the risk of infection, especially where there are high-risk population in a hospital setting. The additional benefit it lower cost is might be the push factor administrators need to implement lean operations.
Public-private partnerships (PPP) are long term cooperative arrangements between the public and private sectors. Healthcare in a pandemic and post-pandemic world can greatly benefit from such arrangements. Critics will argue PPPs will lead to privatisation and profiteering but I believe with strong governance, it is a powerful tool to enhance healthcare systems.
PPPs can be applied in various settings. Private organizations can provide capacity such as building a new hospital and supplying equipment while governments can provide the necessary manpower and expertise.
Labs are now racing to create a vaccine for Covid-19 and PPPs can play a part, in this pandemic and long after. Government funding into private labs and pharmaceutical companies that study infectious diseases can better prepare nations for future disease outbreaks. With government steering the wheel, private labs and pharmaceutical companies will be incentivised to produce vaccines or medicine for the ‘less profitable diseases’, such as Ebola, as many in the public healthcare circle argued.
Opportunities don’t come twice
The key to the above suggestions all revolves around one factor: funding. Without funding, these opportunities will slip away. Therefore it is crucial for health advocates, non-governmental organisations and civil societies to push governments to take these opportunities. Economists are predicting a recession following the Covid-19 pandemic and governments will again look towards austerity measures to reduce the deficit.
However, I strongly believe healthcare austerity is not the way forward, in fact, it might be even detrimental to healthcare. Building a robust healthcare system for the people to secure their health through an economic recession is vital for survival. If we do not, as Robert Burton once penned, it would be penny wise and pounds foolish.