What is COVID-19 teaching us about our health care system?

By Dr. Sandy Buchman

No one could have predicted the impact and repercussions that COVID-19 would have on the world. The current pandemic is disrupting most industries or sectors, including health care.

We’ve all seen how the health care system has responded. Hospitals were reconfigured to handle an expected surge in COVID-19 patients. Virtual care was introduced in the majority of doctors’ practices. Testing centres were opened across the country. As we witness the rapid mobilization of resources and models, I can’t help but ask myself, if these changes pave the way for a better or different health care in the future?


Let’s look at the facts. We’ve seen more progress on virtual care in the past two months than we have in decades. Just a couple of months ago, the Virtual Care Task Force, a collaboration between the CMA, the Royal College and the College of Family Physicians, issued 19 recommendations to help expand virtual care across the country. In a nutshell, the report concluded that it wasn’t technology that was standing in the way. It wasn’t resistance from physicians. They’ve always wanted to expand access to care. And it wasn’t patients who weren’t interested. They were. So, what was in the way?

The release of the Virtual Care Task Force report proved very timely as social distancing became critical to contain the spread of COVID-19. Let’s make sure we retain the uptake in virtual care visits where appropriate. We need to put in place national standards for patient health information access as well as a framework to regulate the safety and quality of virtual care services. And, of course, we need to update education at medical schools and continuing education for health professionals to reflect this way of delivering care.

Prior to COVID-19, we knew that our health care system was strained. Being able to offer more care virtually can help alleviate some of these pressures going forward, but it’s only part of the equation.

The pandemic has exposed a serious gap in seniors care in this country, with more than half the deaths from the virus occurring in long-term care homes. It’s time to renew the discussion about a coordinated, national seniors care strategy should look like in this country. We know that our population is aging and that more is needed to appropriately care for and protect our elderly.

What this period has also demonstrated is how incredibly resilient our health care workers can be. You’re facing unheard of stress levels every day throughout this pandemic, and your efforts are not going unnoticed. Like you, I do worry about the impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of workers and how we will move forward together out of this crisis. We must put in place resources and programs to support the well-being of our health care providers, as they put themselves at tremendous risk to care for others.

 

Dr. Sandy Buchman is President, Canadian Medical Association.