As the Covid-19 pandemic spreads, the number of cases and deaths is growing at varying rates across the globe.

Countries are following a similar trajectory of rapid growth, peak and then gradual decline. Inevitably, countries where the outbreak first started are now seeing a decline in cases and deaths. 

Countries where infection rates started to increase later in the year can use the experience of those that are ahead of them to prepare their own strategies for meeting the challenges this pandemic brings. They can learn from the success of different approaches, such as types of treatment for very ill patients, or how systems and resources are affected by how each government is ending its lockdown. In New Zealand, for example, we have seen how effectively clinicians and scientists have used testing and contact tracing after an immediate lockdown to minimise the impact of the disease.

Countries can also see the impact the virus might have on the wider health and care systems. Undoubtedly, one of long-term consequences will be a need for people who have developed ongoing respiratory problems to be cared for in the community – which could have an impact on care homes.

Data can provide insight into risk

In countries where cases and deaths started earlier in the year than others, data analysis can help them to prepare for second and even third waves, by determining whether there are any specific patterns in incidence. Studies are now underway to look at the role that age and sex play in infection risk. In the UK, the National Institute for Health Research and UK Research and Information are calling for research into associations between Covid-19 incidence and ethnicity. NHS England is supporting the call.

Understanding risk is vital when it comes to helping societies live better with viruses like Covid-19. We know that smoking is a risk factor when a patient has certain types of procedures and obesity appears to be a risk factor in Covid-19 cases. We may therefore see new public health campaigns designed to reduce obesity rates.

Of even greater value will be the work we do to determine the fragility of services within the healthcare system, to ensure we have resources in the right places before any further increase in cases and deaths, rather than welcome but reactive responses such as social distancing and new guidelines for using public transport. 

We should take this opportunity to widen our horizons and harness data from all sectors, including local government. This will help to build an informed view of what might be coming next so that we can be ready for it. It will require joined-up thinking, true collaboration, and a move away from working in silos.

Technology provides safe access to healthcare

Around the world we have seen governments and healthcare systems respond in different ways to the pandemic, but technology has become a critical tool for satisfying the demand placed on finite resources. Remote video consultations are just one example of this, and increased use it crucial given our worldwide shortage of healthcare workers. Remote triage means people who suspect they may have symptoms can access information online and then seek further advice from healthcare professionals, if necessary. These online triage systems can be deployed within a matter of weeks. 

Reports have suggested that, in some areas of the UK, 95% of patient consultations are now taking place online or via telephone, and we think that a significant proportion of these people probably won’t go back to visiting their GP surgery for an initial consultation.

I think that, post-Covid-19, we will adopt remote technologies to the extent that telehealth and telecare will become normal. And, more and more, we will see care homes being routinely fitted with remote monitoring devices, such as sensors on beds, enabling residents to send their blood pressure, heart rate, weight and other readings to case workers. For example, Staffordshire County Council has ensured that its contracting process for building and developing care homes takes connected living into account.

We must reinforce and encourage these positive changes because they will help the NHS spend its resources where care is needed most. The pandemic has seen a reduction in the number of A&E attendances. People with minor health concerns have sought other ways to reach a healthcare professional and have become used to video technology. However, at the same we must also discourage negative behaviour and ensure patients who require urgent care don’t stay away from A&E because they are afraid of catching Covid-19.

Learn lessons from pandemic to find a new normal

These new ways of working are not just restricted to healthcare: all sectors are coming to terms with the new normal and some organisations will be more prepared than others. Businesses will have to adapt, become more creative and agile and learn to think outside of the box.

In my view, one of the greatest lessons from the current pandemic is that we can achieve a great deal in a short space of time. For instance, data sharing access across primary care, which was due to take months to finalise, happened within days. An emergency go-live process was introduced to support access to patient records and appointment management across primary care networks, between GP practices, NHS 111 and beyond.

The pandemic, however, has also exposed weaknesses and failings, and we now have a once-in-a-generation chance to prepare for what might come next. 

Covid-20 could be just around the corner. The quicker we adapt, the more likely it is we will be able to meet the challenge ahead.

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