Pandemic exposes academic health systems' need to be able to rapidly scale, UPMC and Hopkins docs say

Hospital bed

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the critical need for academic health systems (AHSs) to be able to rapidly scale their capacity beyond their current abilities, according to a viewpoint published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

AHSs have been "indepensible" in responding to the pandemic, wrote authors Steven Shapiro, M.D., of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and Paul Rothman, M.D., of Johns Hopkins Medicine. 

That's included radical changes to operations, redeployment of thousands of healthcare workers and launching hundreds of clinical trials and other studies focused on treatments and vaccines.

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However, there are some clear lessons to be learned from the shortcomings of the response. "These events have highlighted opportunities for institutions to reconsider and redesign aspects of care that have come under intense strain, such as infectious disease testing capability and supply chain durability," they wrote in the viewpoint published Wednesday.

Among the most important areas of focus? 

  • Sustained telemedicine adoption: While the use of telemedicine was growing steadily before, the pandemic led to the widespread use of telemedicine by clinicians throughout health systems. "To sustain this approach, commercial health insurance companies, as well as local, state, and federal regulators, will need to embrace the change," Shapiro and Rothman wrote.
  • Rethinking their role: AHSs should work with federal, state and local governments as well as organizations such as the American Public Health Association to build a robust early-warning system to identify potential pandemics before they can spread and to better track the outbreak when they do spread, they wrote.  
  • Increased focus on mental health: The crisis underscored the need for an increased focus on mental health as social distancing intensified loneliness and increased stress among large populations, including healthcare workers.

"Perhaps the most essential lesson—for AHSs, the health care industry, the United States, and the world—is this: the next pandemic will surely come," Shapiro and Rothman wrote. "The only question is when. AHSs and others must be better prepared for that moment."