Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, medical news stories have taken center stage worldwide. As the world continues to emerge from this strenuous battle, governments must reflect on key problems experienced during the outbreak, while reimagining and creating a more streamlined and holistic healthcare model for the future.
This vision should consider the complex and urgent health challenges that might arise as a result of various triggers and therefore include investment in a diverse spectrum of medically trained talents to deliver excellent healthcare services. As such, the immediate future will demand the engagement of competent health workers in specialized fields.
The pandemic has highlighted the critical role epidemiologists play in preventing, alerting, mitigating and managing outbreaks. As an illustration of this, since the onset of the pandemic there have been many ambitious and rigorous efforts to identify the source of outbreaks, understand the key drivers of infection, and monitor the spread of the virus among populations to inform timely decision making.
Moreover, epidemiologists played a key role in developing an understanding of the disease itself by reporting illuminating data such as the number of daily cases by geography, hospitalization rates, death rates, demographic data about patients, the risk factors for severe illness, common symptoms, and effective treatments. Taken together, helpful information such as this can be used by leaders to provide guidance on how to mitigate the effects of disease in various scenarios.
In tandem, epidemiologists must also work with specialist teams of emergency and crisis-management experts to formulate responsive action plans that can help countries astutely navigate precarious health crises using scientific evidence as their prime reference point.
As outbreaks increasingly emerge, it will be necessary also to hire environmental health experts who can link various health issues with associated environmental risks
For example, the Medical Research Council Center for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London consists of more than 200 researchers who study important developments pertaining to infectious disease modeling and management. Its core responsibility lies in providing real-time epidemiological modeling and impact assessment of events such as the H1N1 influenza pandemic, the MERS-CoV outbreak, the Zika epidemics, and the Ebola outbreaks in West Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The center also evaluates the effectiveness of interventions in improving public health, including mass vaccination campaigns, behavioral changes, and health education programs designed to eliminate, reduce or prevent the spread of disease.
As outbreaks increasingly emerge, it will be necessary also to hire environmental health experts who can link various health issues with associated environmental risks. Efforts to improve outdoor and indoor air quality, water and sanitation systems, waste management, and biodiversity protection are just some of the policy levers required to help reduce the likelihood of pandemics emerging and spreading rapidly.
According to research published in 2017 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, experts forecast that zoonotic diseases, disease agents that make the leap from animals to humans, will account for three-quarters of new or emerging diseases in humans in the future. Addressing the root causes of these trigger points will help safeguard population health and reduce premature mortality.
As novel diseases emerge, compounded by existing illnesses, it will be of pivotal importance for governments to rely on strong scientific evidence that can provide guidance on effective interventions, the behavioral and societal factors that affect public health and effective treatments, and prevention strategies.
That said, the championing of influential research projects could also lead to breakthroughs and innovations that transform patients’ lives. Particular areas of interest in many research institutes around the world currently include pain management, geriatric medicine, rare pediatric illnesses, preventative medicine and epidemiology, infectious diseases, and women’s health.
A recurring theme in all of these efforts is a fundamental reliance on big data analytics to inform decision making. The digital information era has paved the way for numerous innovations in the healthcare system, improving overall value for patients.
The data-based solutions that have been successfully implemented include patient-staff ratio forecasts to ensure the proper provision of health workers at facilities in sufficient numbers; the digitization of medical records to allow easy access to and tracking of medical histories; the identification of successful case-management principles; the investigation of medical errors; improvements to medical equipment and supply management; enhancement of prescription-management processes; and use of data for learning and development.
In the same vein, in the future there will be growing dependence and capitalization on health technologies to help deliver outstanding care services to patients. Chief among these innovations will be the ability to deliver care in any place, at any time through telehealth consultation systems.
Advances are already paving the way for technology that can assist in diagnosis and treatment, including the use of artificial intelligence to analyze CT scans; mixed-reality headsets to help surgeons while performing procedures; and the analysis of blood using smartwatches.
At the heart of public health policy lies the empowerment of patients to put the management of their health in their own hands. As such, a team of health-promotion specialists can be trained to deliver key guidance about self-care and self-management among communities.
Common programs include the launch of online health portals targeting various sections of the community; rethinking school meal menus; physical education courses; community awareness sessions about illnesses and their triggers; and the production of informative medical documentaries for mass viewing.
To support all this, health agencies have to employ behavioral health experts to assist in understanding the key drivers of health-related decisions, to help design interventions and guidance that takes into account the various obstacles and motivations among patients.
In addition to the transfer of care to individual responsibility, public health policy should also strive to equip people with the knowledge and skills they need to care for vulnerable family members, including children, elderly parents or people with chronic illnesses. Clinical social workers should be employed to assist families in delivering appropriate care to patients in the comfort of their own homes, while offering useful guidance on long-term care techniques, to reduce the reliance on healthcare facilities, through preventative strategies.
By considering these evolving structural changes to public health, leaders will benefit from a reimagining of the spectrum of health services through the engagement of teams of essential and competent workers to support them in their noble mission.
• Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature. She can be contacted at www.amorelicious.com.