Recently, we were honored to host Dr. Leana Wen, emergency physician, public health professor at George Washington University, contributing columnist at The Washington Post, CNN medical analyst, and author of Lifelines: A Doctor’s Journey in the Fight for Public Health.
In her remarks, Dr. Wen highlighted the biggest lessons we’ve learned from COVID-19 and some key health trends we should pay attention to.
COVID-19: Lessons Learned
In speaking about where we currently stand with the pandemic in the United States, Dr. Wen was cautiously optimistic. “We’ve turned a corner for the time being, and we should celebrate where we are,” Wen says, “while also keeping an eye on new variants and what could happen in the fall if we don’t increase vaccination rates.” As we look forward, here are three lessons we should carry with us:
- A cohesive strategy is critical. Looking back on 2020, it’s hard to figure out what the country’s main goal was in addressing the pandemic. Were we trying to achieve zero cases or avoid overwhelming hospitals? In Dr. Wen’s view, we lacked a strategy most of the country could agree on, and that’s a big reason why we’re where we are today.
- Investment in public health is a necessity. It’s easy to see the effects of a doctor treating a sick or injured patient; it’s not as easy to see the impact of public health professionals preventing injury or illness. “It’s very difficult to make the case for public health,” Wen says. “But COVID has laid bare what happens when you don’t invest in it.”
- We must reduce health disparities. Different populations have always been disproportionately affected by certain diseases due to many factors, but “the pandemic brought out these underlying disparities and the systemic racism that has long existed in our healthcare system,” Wen says. “It’s not the virus that brought about disparities, it’s our lack of systems to support.”
Looking Forward: Health Trends to Pay Attention to
1. Short-term: Focus on Vaccinations and Catching Up on Care
According to Dr. Wen, right now we must “vaccinate our way out of the pandemic” and be laser-focused on increasing vaccination rates, especially among children. As a country we’ve made great progress, but vaccine hesitancy and access issues continue to pose a challenge. Beyond that, Dr. Wen warns we must get back on track with routine healthcare.
“Healthcare is at the brink,” says Wen. “Our healthcare workers are exhausted and our public health system has been totally decimated. Issues that were previously crises and urgent emergency issues — like the opioid epidemic and HIV/AIDS — are out of control even more.”
Dr. Wen pointed out that we must pay attention to these neglected health issues, whether it’s childhood immunizations, lead poisoning, cancer, or obesity. For example, of those who say they gained “undesired weight” during the pandemic, the average gain was 29 pounds — and 10% gained more than 50 pounds. “I worry about all the metabolic diseases — diabetes, heart disease, etc. — that will be perpetuated even more because of the pandemic,” Wen says.
2. Telemedicine Will Become an Integral Part of the Care Spectrum
Before the pandemic, the longevity of telemedicine was uncertain. But now, the question is no longer will it exist, but what will it replace? Dr. Wen feels there will still be a need for brick-and-mortar health facilities, but virtual care can fill the gap by providing more convenient and less time-intensive options. How exactly telemedicine will be reimbursed in the future is still unclear, but she believes there’s little doubt about telehealth continuing to become an integral part of the overall spectrum of care.
However, access to telemedicine remains an issue. Dr. Wen stated that those who adopt this type of care tend to be people who are already privileged, those who can afford a phone and the internet. For them, telehealth is a nice-to-have. She says that while it’s great that more people are leveraging telemedicine, we cannot leave out the more vulnerable populations. A more inclusive approach is required to provide telehealth to everyone, including those who can’t pay their phone bill.
3. Mental Health Should Be Treated the Same as Physical Health
According to Dr. Wen, mental health issues have been stigmatized and overlooked in our society for far too long. From Dr. Wen’s perspective, we must start viewing mental health conditions in the same way we treat physical health conditions, as they’re just as valid and important.
“I really want us to get to the point where, if someone is diagnosed with depression or anxiety,” Wen says, “they’re treated with the same compassion as if it was asthma or diabetes.”
4. Health Benefits Strategies Should Include Social Determinants of Health
Factors like the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the place we live are a core part of healthcare. When addressing the health of a population, Dr. Wen stated we must consider these disparities — because improving equity comes hand in hand with improving health.
“It’s not a zero sum game,” Wen says. “You don’t have to take life expectancy from one group in order to give it to another. You can improve health and reduce disparities at the same time. I hope moving forward out of the pandemic, we’re seeing how interconnected we are, how we’re all in this together.”
Dr. Wen closed by sharing that benefits managers can play a big role in reducing health disparities. Many employers already provide programs that help, but not all employees may be aware that the programs exist and are available to them, or they don’t understand how the programs can help. In these cases, the focus should be on raising awareness, especially among vulnerable populations, and incentivizing participation among the groups of people who need care the most.
As employers continue to navigate the challenges associated with the ongoing pandemic and help their employees and employees’ families get the right care at the right time, Dr. Wen advises not to let perfect be the enemy of good. Choose one tangible thing you can do right now, then build on that progress.