Looking to the Future

Key takeaways from COVID-19

Published in Hopkins Medicine - Spring/Summer 2021

Every day, millions more Americans are vaccinated against COVID-19, moving us closer to the normalcy we all crave. Of course, this will be a long process, and there will no doubt be bumps in the road. But as we can begin to look cautiously to a post-pandemic future, it is essential to think about what this crisis has taught us. How can we use this experience to improve health care, and society?

One crucial lesson is that global pandemics can and do occur. In prior decades, we were perhaps lucky, and narrowly avoided several other potential pandemics, such as SARS, MERS and H1N1. This time, however, we were not so lucky. Millions of health care workers around the world have responded heroically over the past 15 months. But it is also clear that governments, health systems and health organizations can do more to prepare for future pandemics, and to coordinate responses across borders. One key will be to build a more effective warning system to identify potential pandemics before they can spread widely.

In the U.S. and in most other countries, the pandemic has also illuminated a chronic lack of investment in public health infrastructure. Across the globe, we have seen that a well-funded, effective public health system can make an enormous difference. Some countries, such as South Korea and New Zealand, have mounted effective, coordinated responses, and as a result have had more success in controlling the spread of the virus within their borders.

The pandemic has also underlined the centrality of scientific research, including basic science research. One of the key lessons of the pandemic is the utter importance of research, on all levels — for human health, for the national and international economy, for the good of society. Scientific research has been crucial in combatting this crisis, and we need to continue to foster it, across the board.

This is particularly true for research on potential treatments and vaccines. For instance, we need a better basic understanding of how viruses work. Research has been and will be essential to defeating this pandemic, as well as others that will come in the future. Over the past decade, work on emerging disease vaccines and treatments has been underfunded; hopefully this will now change.

Another key takeaway: Health care in this country must be more nimble. The pandemic required rapid changes, and health care responded. We need to retain something of this sense of urgency in the months and year ahead. To give one example: For the past decade, hospitals and clinics in this country had been moving, very slowly, to incorporate telemedicine. With the coming of the pandemic, this transformation occurred almost overnight. At Johns Hopkins Medicine, we are now seeing about 60,000 patients a month via telemedicine. Doctors who were once reluctant are now enthusiastic, and many patients say these appointments can save them time and money.

COVID-19 has also driven home the importance of the social determinants of health. People of color, as well as those with lower incomes, have suffered disproportionately from this virus. And so far, they are also less likely to receive the vaccine. This is no surprise: Such inequities occur for many diseases. Going forward, we must do more to reduce these disparities, locally, nationally and internationally.

Perhaps the most essential takeaway — for our institution, for the health care industry, for our country and for the world — is this: The next pandemic will surely come. The only question is when. We must all do more to prepare for that moment.