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IBX Insights

5 Silver Linings of COVID-19 for Health Care

A graphic with "Virtual Health Care, Behavioral Health Care, Outpatient Procedures, Value-Based Payments, Greater Awareness of Health Inequities"

The impact COVID-19 has had on our economy, our livelihoods, our finances, and our physical and mental health has been incredibly devastating. But, as it’s said, every cloud has a silver lining. The pandemic has driven some positive changes in health care that are worth acknowledging.

1. Virtual Health Care

There used to be great skepticism about whether people could receive quality health care over the phone or via the computer. Then the pandemic struck, and suddenly getting an in-person doctor’s appointment was much harder. And many of us found the prospect of sitting in a waiting room with other sick people much too risky, even with masks on.

So, many more doctors began offering appointments via phone or online platforms. Patients eagerly took advantage of this opportunity. And insurance companies like Independence Blue Cross (Independence) expanded their coverage for these virtual services.

It turned out that doctors were indeed able to diagnose and treat many conditions remotely. Patients discovered that virtual care could be much more convenient than in-person care. No need to get yourself to a doctor’s office or be exposed to other patients’ germs!

Virtual care has also made it possible for many patients to see specialists outside their own geographical area, allowing them to benefit from a level of expertise that may be unavailable closer to home.

2. Improved Access to, and Acceptance of, Behavioral Health Care

Before the pandemic, cultural stigma stopped many people from getting help for emotional and behavioral health problems. The idea of seeing a therapist was embarrassing and intimidating. And some people didn’t want their families or coworkers to know.

But virtual care meant you could now talk to a therapist from the privacy of your own home. As a result, many people finally sought the help they needed.

Behavioral health care has started to get more integrated into primary care practices. This means that more patients can be screened for behavioral health issues as part of their regular doctor’s appointments and may even be able to speak to a behavioral health specialist right then and there.

Also, so many people experienced such extreme emotional distress and trauma because of the pandemic that getting behavioral health care became more socially acceptable.

3. A Shift From Inpatient to Outpatient Procedures

Many surgical procedures can be done just as effectively in an outpatient surgical center as in a hospital, with lower complication rates, greater patient satisfaction and at a 59 percent lower cost. However, the shift from inpatient to outpatient care hasn’t advanced as quickly as you’d expect.

Then the pandemic happened, and suddenly hospitals were stretched beyond their limits taking care of COVID patients. So, many non-emergency procedures, like hip and knee replacements, were moved to outpatient surgical centers — where they were handled just as effectively. That trend continues today.

Some types of surgeries still must be done in the hospital. But when they can be done in the outpatient environment, it has positive benefits.

4. A Faster Shift Towards Value-Based Payments

Traditionally, doctors have provided care on a fee-for-service model. That means they got paid for the number of services they delivered.

Policymakers and insurance companies have been trying to move health care towards a value-based model, where doctors and hospitals get paid based on the quality of the care they deliver and their patients’ outcomes. But again, this shift has been slow.

When COVID-19 happened, many patients completely stopped going to the doctor if it could be avoided. Therefore, doctors and hospitals weren’t providing nearly as many services or making as much revenue as they had been. That made value-based care much more attractive. Health care providers started finding more effective, less expensive ways of helping their patients. Patients’ health improved and costs went down.

5. Greater Awareness of Health Inequities

Throughout history, people have experienced better or worse health outcomes depending on their socioeconomic status, race, and other factors. But the pandemic made these inequities even more obvious. People of color experienced far greater hospitalization and death rates than their white counterparts. Now there are many more conversations going on about health equity and how to address these inequalities.

Some Less Positive Trends

The pandemic has also had many negative effects on the health of our population.

  • Many people put off getting important preventive health screenings out of fear of going to the doctor. There is great worry that this will prevent many serious health problems — including breast, colon, and cervical cancer — from being caught at an earlier, more treatable stage.
  • The pandemic caused so much stress, such widespread job losses, and such an increase in sedentary lifestyles that there has been a major spike in rates of obesity.
  • Behavioral health problems are much more prevalent and severe.
  • There have also been increases in rates of substance use disorders and chronic disease.

So, I want to encourage everyone reading this to recommit to your health. Catch up on your health screenings. Try to be more active. Get help for your physical and emotional health problems! It’s really urgent.

And employers, please continue to engage your workforce in their health benefits. This will help them take better care of themselves, and could also help reduce both absenteeism and presenteeism. Independence Blue Cross offers a variety of workplace well-being resources and programs to support and elevate your employees’ health.

Dr. Reetika Kumar

Dr. Reetika Kumar has served as medical director and vice president of Clinical Services at Independence Health Group since 2017. Her expertise and commitment to improving the health of our members is focused on proven practices, evidenced-based medicine, and cost-effective health care delivery. Reetika is a mom of two amazing kids and stays active during the pandemic with the Peloton Female Physicians group.