Health care professionals talk continued impact of COVID on system highlighting deficiencies

Health care professionals talk continued impact of COVID on system highlighting deficiencies

The Hill brought together medical experts on Thursday morning to reflect on lessons learned from the pandemic and discuss the future of US health care after major shifts in the health policy realm.

At The Hill’s 2023 Future of Healthcare Summit, moderated by Editor in Chief Bob Cusack and National Political Reporter Julia Manchester, misinformation about COVID-19 and health literacy in general was the first of several common concerns among the speakers.

Former Surgeon General Jerome Adams said that the pandemic only highlighted the issue.

“COVID was just a magnifying glass on the problems that have existed for decades, for centuries,” Adams said. “It was a magnifying glass on misinformation.”

Dawn O’Connell also emphasized false facts as a challenge in her role as the assistant secretary for Preparedness and Response within the US Department of Health & Human Services (HHS). O’Connell explained that HHS avoids giving the public room to doubt their choices by clarifying what information the department does and doesn’t know

“We’ve just tried to be very transparent,” O’Connell said. “But it is a problem, and it’s something that we’re all going to have to wrestle with.”

Adams also pointed to the politicization of health as an obstacle to progress in public debates. The doctor said that his role in the Trump administration made it difficult to chime into conversation because the media often turns preventive health into a political conversation.

“It’s impacting our ability to have rational conversations about important issues that, again, are about so much more than Donald Trump,” Adams said.

Health inequity was another shortcoming that the pandemic exacerbated. According to Adams, the same communities who were most likely to die from COVID-19 were also most likely to die from other illnesses.

Adams added that he took individual action to combat inequity by remaining in his position, despite public skepticism of his working under the former president. As the second African American male surgeon general in history, he felt it was important to represent people who looked and thought like him.

Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, vice provost for global initiatives and co-director of the Health Transformation Institute at the University of Pennsylvania noted the COVID-19 pandemic exposed other underlying problems with the system.

“One of the things we saw with COVID is how rickety parts of the system were, how easy it was to overwhelm,” Emanuel said. “The fact is that hospitals today and that part of the system are really teetering economically — burnout from staff, lack of staff in critical areas — and it’s not going to take much to really create a crisis in the hospital sector.”

“The public, politicians (and) policy makers don’t appreciate how tenuous that situation is,” he added.

Such shortages were also found at the highest levels of government. According to O’Connell, HHS had to rely on the Department of Defense, the Coast Guard and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to speed up contracts with vaccine developers and fill their staffing shortages.

Now, she’s asking Congress for that hiring and acquisition power

“For whatever comes next… I’m going to need to be able to move quickly,” O’Connell said. “We’re living in an era of politico-crisis. I can’t always have FEMA available — they’re going to be out doing wildfires and other weather events as we’re seeing climate change pick up — and I’m going to need to do the health things.”

Although she “remains optimistic” that HHS will be granted those authorities, health care staffing shortages persist across the country.

President and CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association Dr. Elena Rios, said that the future of the workforce depends on the nation’s students of color. This starts, she added, with elevating professionals of color to leadership positions.

“Ultimately this is about power, who gets to make these decisions and who gets to set the agendas,” said Founder & CEO of Global Liver Institute Donna Cryer. “If more people from the communities are the people who help set the agendas, then the agendas will help better reflect the needs of those communities.”

Rios also emphasized the need to increase residency slots for training of doctors, create more community-based clinics, and offer training in different languages.

“Then, you have not only a job and an economic engine, but you have more people who can deliver in-language, culturally concordant care,” Cryer added. “You’ve really addressed the problem in so many different ways by building up a workforce from the community, for the community.”

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