Looking back at the health care and life sciences landscape on Jan. 1 is disorienting. The novel coronavirus that has now eclipsed so much other work in hospitals, clinics and labs had not registered on US radars.
A glimpse into the SmartBrief archives reveals a slow trickle of news starting the first full week of January, stories that described a mysterious spate of pneumonia in China. The cause was thought to be a SARS-like virus, and the number of reported cases was 59. Chinese authorities reported that the virus “does not ‘transmit readily.’”
Few of SmartBrief’s readers clicked. At the time, they were more focused on Medicare for All and the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Health care price transparency and the future of the Affordable Care Act. The role of Big Tech in health care and the opioid crisis.
Fast forward to April. Things look pretty different.
The rise of social distancing has brought a wave of worries that span all sectors of the economy, and health care is no exception. But for the time being, most of the concerns in this space are far more immediate: Vaccine development; possible treatments; coverage for testing and care; mental health; shortages of personal protective equipment; stress on the front lines; and so much more.
Here are the dimensions that matter most to SmartBrief’s readers in these sectors, and their implications for how the world will take shape after the pandemic.
Mobilization across the life sciences
As the novel coronavirus’ significance became clear, academic scientists, drugmakers and device companies got to work. Already, trials for remdesivir, two combinations of lopinavir and ritonavir, chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine are under way. Lesser known glucocorticoid, antiparasitic and other compounds could be promising, and convalescent plasma may be as well.
Vaccine development is likely to take longer, but dozens of studies are in the works, and a number have moved to animal and even human safety studies. Altogether, by the end of March, FasterCures was already tracking more than 100 candidate vaccines and drugs being studied for preventing or treating COVID-19.
On the testing side, the bumpy rollout of a federal testing program slowed early containment efforts, and mask, swab and other supply shortages compounded problems getting patients safely tested, even after private companies and state-level regulators got involved. Options are expanding, with companies cranking out point-of-care tests and even home kits.
Regulators, meanwhile, have been working to keep all R&D moving by accelerating timelines, facilitating emergency use requests, relaxing requirements and easing medtech barriers. These moves are generally temporary but could have long-term implications if companies and regulators alike see payoff from the ability to pivot to meet a new need quickly.
The ultimate disruptor
Long seen as ripe for disruption, health care might finally be having its Amazon moment. Telemedicine in particular has gotten attention for its potential to mitigate the spread of disease by facilitating remote screening and monitoring of less severe COVID-19 cases. If patients experience the ease of remote care, will they be willing to go back to the old way when this is over? It will be interesting to see.
Care delivery is being disrupted in other ways, such as through home delivery of medications, and technology like artificial intelligence and IoT devices like connected thermometers are capturing attention for their ability to capture and synthesize more information, faster. Insurers are lowering barriers to care and taking worries like balance billing off the table.
As stakeholders bring all hands on deck to fight COVID-19, new ideas are being tested, optimized and tested again, and some could solve longtime problems in health care. Information sharing and collaboration are at an all-time high. When the pandemic has passed, it’s unlikely there will be any return to the status quo. As Christus Health exec Jonathan Manis says, “the genie is out of the bottle.”
Heroism and heartbreak on the front lines
There is probably no story more important – or more compelling -- right now than the one being written on the front lines of health care. Doctors, nurses and other clinicians are learning to recognize and manage a new disease on the fly, bringing creativity, compassion and innovation to their work, but also experiencing new levels of stress, heartache and worry for themselves and their own families.
In some areas, emergency departments and ICUs are being stretched to their limits. Others are bracing for what they know is likely coming. Many are concerned about shortages of medication, personal protective equipment, ventilators, space, beds, staff – and nearly every other resource they need.
As resources are strained, concerns about the most difficult of decisions mount. When there is one ventilator and many in need, who should be saved? And how will we deal with the consequences of those decisions?
The scars left by COVID-19 will be many, but few are as worrisome as those that will be borne by the clinicians in the thick of battle. These professionals will need support for months and years to come, and stakeholders across the industry must ensure it’s there for them. Some of those clinicians are SmartBrief’s own readers, and many of the rest of our readers support that work. We thank every one of them for their contributions.
We’ll keep doing what it takes to inform professionals in health care and the life sciences on the latest news that affects them – the challenges and, we hope, the successes we will see during this pandemic. We’ll be there through the hard times now, and to celebrate the recovery of this industry and this society after it’s over.
Melissa Turner is director of health care and life sciences content at SmartBrief. She edits science, medical and health care delivery newsletters and oversees development of content marketing pieces for SmartBrief’s health care clients.
This feature reflects the most read items across SmartBrief's health care and life sciences publications. Check out all of SmartBrief’s health care newsletters, covering health IT, news for insurers, news for providers and more to get news like this delivered straight to your inbox. Also, be sure to check out opportunities to reach SmartBrief's readers with your own content and solutions.