Healthcare is one of the most adaptive fields, and thanks to advances in research and technology, it evolves continuously. In the aftermath of the pandemic, governments and health providers around the world are facing new challenges, but what are they and what are the solutions?
One of the most significant challenges facing healthcare providers, patients, and policymakers today is clearing Covid-19 backlogs. The pandemic has created new obstacles and exacerbated existing issues creating huge waiting lists for non-urgent services and procedures and increasing pressure on emergency care facilities. In May 2022, more than 6 million people in the UK were waiting for NHS treatment (source). This is a record number. In Australia, patients are joining waiting lists that are already extensive, and in Canada, patients are waiting longer for treatment than ever.
The pandemic caused millions of appointments to be canceled due to clinic and hospital closures, the suspension of non-urgent services and treatments, and reduced capacities. Even when medical and dental facilities reopened after lockdowns, most operated a skeleton service, which limited appointment numbers through social distancing. On top of the patients whose appointments and procedures were canceled in 2020 or 2021, people who were previously fearful of seeking medical advice are now coming forward for treatment. In 2020, over 40% of Americans admitted delaying or avoiding seeking medical help due to concerns about Covid. Recently, there has been a surge in the demand for care, which has increased pressure.
There are various solutions for tackling backlogs, but none provide a quick fix. It could take several months or years to return to ‘normal’ and there are fears that there could be a sharp rise in cases of diseases like cancer and gum disease due to reduced services, delays, and clinic and screening program disruption during the pandemic. Many governments have made additional funding available for health services. In the UK, surgical hubs have been set up to enable more patients to undergo routine procedures outside of normal working hours and there has been recorded investment in diagnostics to speed up the process of carrying out tests and scans and diagnosing and treating patients.
Another important solution to consider is virtual medicine. In the last two years, the number of patients accessing care and advice through video and phone calls and online consultations has soared. While it’s not always possible for doctors and other health professionals to treat or advise patients virtually, technology will play a huge role in reducing waiting times. Patients can now schedule appointments without thinking about where they are or when or how they get to a clinic or access advice instantly at the touch of a button. From urgent care to advice about minor ailments, there’s scope to utilize virtual services to free up time for healthcare teams and cut waiting times. A 2021 study revealed that 88% of US patients wanted to continue using telehealth services after Covid.
On the surface, clearing Covid backlogs seems relatively simple. The answer lies in providing additional services and increasing capacity. The problem is that most countries are facing staff shortages and recruitment difficulties. There are significant shortages of nurses, physicians, dental professionals, and technicians, which means that running extra clinics and extending opening hours are not viable solutions. Research conducted by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) suggests that there could be a shortage of 37,800-124,000 physicians in the US alone by 2034. In the UK, it is estimated that 50,000 new doctors will be needed to cope with the demand for treatment.
Recruitment drives can help to encourage people to consider a career in medicine, but one of the most challenging aspects of the healthcare industry is a lack of time. It takes several years to train doctors or nurses with advanced, specialty skills. The demand is rising now, so even if there is a surge in applications for healthcare courses, the gap will widen before it starts to close again.
Possible solutions for recruitment issues include making international application processes more straightforward, increasing capacities at universities and colleges, and enabling qualified professionals to take on a wider range of duties. In the UK, for example, new measures allow dental therapists to offer basic services without the supervision of a dentist. Providing more attractive employment packages could also tempt more people to join health teams.
The aging population
By 2050, over 60s will account for 21.3% of the global population. This is an increase of 9% from 2015. The aging population poses difficulties for governments all over the world. It is positive that people are living longer, but an older population increases pressure on health and social care services. Trend lines are clear, but in many countries, there are already issues related to accessing senior healthcare and social care services for the elderly, as well as large-scale problems created or exacerbated by the pandemic. To improve access to services, providers need to increase recruitment in key areas, such as geriatric nursing, neurology, and home healthcare, now.
Focus on prevention
At a time when medical services are under intense pressure, focusing on prevention is hugely beneficial. It’s not possible to prevent every illness or condition, but up to 40% of premature deaths could be prevented every year. Promoting self-care and healthy living could reduce rates of heart disease, some types of cancer, dementia, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure. Improving health education, using technology, such as wearable devices to track activity levels, and making healthy food and exercise affordable and accessible could all help to create healthier populations that are less reliant on health services.
The pandemic has created new challenges for healthcare teams and governments, but there were already issues before Covid-19 swept through nations. The population is aging at a significant pace, there are shortages of trained, skilled staff, and millions of people die each year from preventable illnesses. In the immediate future, policymakers and health providers are concerned with clearing backlogs and training more healthcare workers, but they also need to act now to prevent existing problems from getting worse in the future.
(Devdiscourse’s journalists were not involved in the production of this article. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Devdiscourse and Devdiscourse does not claim any responsibility for the same.)