4 Lessons Learned from COVID-19 in 2020

Key Learnings

  • There were hard lessons learned from COVID-19 in 2020
  • COVID-19 created significant challenges for healthcare in 2020
  • Impact will likely continue into 2021
  • There’s opportunity for learning, but also optimism

This year of superlatives – most, hardest, and unprecedented – is finally coming to an end. And in any year, we reflect on the past and plan for the future. This year feels different, not only because it seemed to last more than 12 months, but because so much happened in this time. And for the healthcare sector, it is even more acute. COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerabilities in our healthcare system, and it has pushed us to the very edges of our abilities to respond. It has highlighted issues we have struggled with in years prior 2020 and presented us with a host of new challenges.

And at the same time, we have seen notable examples of human ingenuity. We have cheered as our frontline workers, including coworkers, family members and friends, go above and beyond, day after day to help and to heal. We have witnessed technological and medical advancements to help the pandemic. And we have seen daily displays of human kindness and generosity across the globe.

So, yes – 2020 presented us with a wide range of experiences and lessons. And, as we soon move into a new year, we must take the good with us and learn from the challenging. This multi-part series looks at the year in review, what is to come, and some predictions for 2021.

First, let’s take a closer look at four lessons learned from COVID-19 in 2020.

Lesson One: COVID-19 has caused an acceleration of change in the healthcare industry.

Before COVID-19, telehealth faced obstacles in adoption and use. These obstacles were impacted by issues related to reimbursement, licensure and eligible services – and doubt about its effectiveness in providing patient care.

With the emergence of COVID-19 came the ultimate challenge: to learn and respond to a pandemic in real-time, and also to provide care for illness and preventable death not associated with the virus. As the spread of the virus deepened, and the work to develop a global vaccine to cure the disease was in process, healthcare took an unprecedented leap into telehealth services, one that perhaps was well overdue.

This transformation is one that lasts, I hope, as caregivers and patients alike become increasingly comfortable with new ways of delivering and receiving treatment.

Lesson Two: Access to – and avoidance of care – could lead to worsening health conditions. 

One of the stark realities of 2020 and the national health emergency has been the high number of people losing access to employer-provided health insurance, compounding a long-standing issue of patients avoiding healthcare for financial reasons. With employer-linked healthcare, and related costs of COBRA as a replacement, many unemployed Americans have made hard choices, sacrificing preventive healthcare. Others are avoiding or delaying medical care out of fear, concerned they may face exposure to the virus.

“Delayed or forgone care may already be driving alarming health trends including excess deaths not attributed to COVID-19,” as Health Affairs describes.  There is concern that for numerous non-COVID-19 conditions, postponing or skipping care could increase illness severity, morbidity, and mortality.

And, as the pandemic persists, physicians fear that missed care could accumulate and generate detrimental long-term effects on patient health caused by both known and undiagnosed conditions. Plus, with the virus spreading across the country, many healthcare systems have been forced to suspend or postpone elective surgeries and procedures, which not only impacted the bottom line of healthcare entities, it also underscores a concern over the potential long-term effects of missed or delayed care.

In fact, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA),  recent evidence indicates that U.S. states with the highest numbers of COVID-19 deaths also experienced large increases in deaths due to other causes (such as diabetes and heart disease). While it is early to determine whether this is a trend, it suggests that serious consequences may already be emerging.

This comes at a time when there is growing awareness of the increased risk factors of coronavirus for people with chronic or long-term conditions, or comorbidities. And like other years of great change, 2020 was a year for new vocabulary among the general public, including comorbidity, along with “unprecedented” and “QR code.”

Lesson Three: Staffing shortages and burnout are only worsening due to COVID-19.

We started the year with genuine concern about staffing shortages across the country, coupled with the reality of nurse and clinician burnout and alarm fatigue. “Even before the coronavirus hit, America’s hospitals were desperately short-staffed, with the Association of American Medical Colleges forecasting a shortfall of 122,000 physicians by 2032, and an estimated 1.1 million new registered nurses needed by 2022,” states Alyssa Rapp of Fierce Healthcare. COVID-19 creates an enormous demand for nurses and doctors and an increase in conditions such as alarm and alert fatigue and burnout.

Hospitals in at least 25 states are critically short of nurses, doctors, and other staff as coronavirus cases surge across the United States, according to the industry’s trade association and a tally conducted by STATNews.com. “The situation has gotten so bad that in some places, severely ill patients have been transferred hundreds of miles for an available bed — from Texas to Arizona, and from central Missouri to Iowa,” writes Rapp. And we’ve all celebrated the clinicians who move where help is needed, like the nurses who traveled to New York in April, and then returned to their own cities to help stem the tide as the virus began surging elsewhere.

Bottomline: Battling the virus and staffing shortages have led many healthcare decision-makers to streamline workflows and simplify communication wherever possible. And this is a trend I hope continues to evolve; simplifying clinical communication to match the real-time speed a care team demands.

Lesson Four: Cybersecurity is still a massive challenge for healthcare.

Healthcare decision-makers have been under intense pressure on issues of cybersecurity since the beginning of 2020. The emergence of COVID-19 has opened the door to new risk levels in the battle to protect electronic patient health records. According to Healthcare IT News, the virus was accompanied by a host of cyber aggressors with an eye on the vulnerabilities that would almost certainly be exposed in healthcare institutions’ armor. At the same time, for obvious reasons, attention and energy were diverted to the frontline of patient care.

The growing use of telehealth coupled with temporary relaxation of some of the HIPAA regulations to allow providers to communicate using platforms familiar and available to the public, also increases risk levels. As telehealth usage increases, so does the number of devices connecting to healthcare organization networks, creating new entryways into an organization’s systems.

While many organizations implement strict HIPAA policies or introduce secure texting or mobile EHRs, people default to using what they know works quickly under duress. And as noted above, when speed is favored over security, and cumbersome systems get in the way, some clinicians have resorted to texting on less secure networks during the pandemic, raising risk levels for data breaches.

“Cyberattacks targeting healthcare firms have increased 150 percent since the COVID-19 virus hit the U.S. shores,” according to an information security news source. “The pandemic’s unprecedented impact on healthcare lay bare the gaping holes in the healthcare industry’s cybersecurity defenses. It is a sobering wakeup call that security experts say will have a lasting impact on the healthcare industry well into 2021.”

Final Thoughts

These lessons learned from COVID-19 in 2020 were hard learned but, despite it all, I feel a sense of optimism when I think ahead to the New Year. 2021 will bring us new vaccines, increased understanding of how to contain and limit the spread of COVID-19, and where we need to shore up and innovate further in our healthcare system.

We have seen incredible work done this year, and a collective sense of purpose reignited – that we, together, can do so much to protect and help our communities. Only good can come from something like that and it leaves me with hope for the year to come.

Learn more about Halo Health’s KLAS 2020 ranking in our blog,
Halo Health Top Performer in KLAS Clinical Communications Report
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