Joseph Saba considers the affect of COVID-19 on access to healthcare

Today the world faces a pandemic with consequences the size and speed of which we’ve never seen in our modern society. Political turmoil, economic downturns, overcrowded hospitals, overworked healthcare workers and nearly 540,000 lives lost. Why wasn’t today’s health system better able to cope, and how will access to healthcare be impacted moving forward?

The challenge of reaching patients

For centuries, hospitals and health facilities have been the central pillar of health systems. Yet the world has radically changed. So has the size of our population and the type of diseases that impact our lives. Through it all, the healthcare sector has remained mostly unchanged, generating a significant void outside health facilities and a deluge of cases inside. Hospitals can no longer do the job alone.

Most health systems don’t have the infrastructure, network and capacity to communicate with patients when they leave the hospital or the clinic. Amid a pandemic, this made it very difficult to pre-emptively help vulnerable clusters prevent disease or to quickly identify and isolate the infected. Outside a pandemic, this long-ignored gap makes it almost impossible to follow patients in their care and treatment journey. The result is poor treatment adherence and medical outcomes.

COVID-19 has made it clear that solutions are needed more than ever to complement the existing health system and close these dangerous gaps affecting patients’ access to care and treatment.

Adapting to the new reality

New digital ecosystems allow healthcare professionals to reach and follow up with patients when they leave the health facility to ensure treatment adherence. These approaches can be replicated across the health system to optimise treatment outcomes by improving compliance.

Exploring complementary ‘brick and mortar’ methods for supporting chronic treatment management, such as retail pharmacy outlets, will also be important to address patients’ fear of infection when visiting typical clinical environments like hospitals.

Another access area affected by COVID-19 is treatment affordability. The economic repercussions of COVID-19 are being felt at all levels – from cuts to national healthcare budgets to lower consumer spending power. The result will be a need for access solutions that reach more broadly across the patient population in both developing and developed countries.

To get medicines to the greatest number of people, including the poorest, in the most sustainable way, segmenting by ability to pay will be critical. Segmenting enables wealthier segments to essentially ‘make up’ for lower prices paid by poorer segments, enabling the whole population to benefit while maintaining an acceptable ROI for pharma companies behind many of these initiatives. Including multiple stakeholders such as charities, patient groups and non-governmental organisations will further help ensure the sustainability of these affordability-based solutions.

COVID-19 is not yet over and it will not be our last pandemic. The healthcare challenges we face today are also not going away. It is time to modernise our health systems and adapt them to the changing world. It is time to expand the meaning of healthcare providers and their reach beyond the hospital, embracing telemedicine and alternate care and treatment delivery models. It is time to embrace innovation and multisectoral global collaboration.

Let’s honour the work of healthcare professionals by creating an environment where they can truly do the best for patients. Let’s honour the thousands of lives lost to COVID-19 by building a better system to facilitate access to healthcare for generations to come