Building a Stronger Public Health System: Lessons Learned from the Pandemic

The United States is preparing for a more normal summer, as more and more people are vaccinated and the number of COVID-19 cases plummets. Americans are ready to put the pandemic behind them, but this moment is also an opportune time to reflect on the past year and a half.

The national response to COVID-19 highlighted several ways that we can strengthen our public health system for the future. Here are three lessons learned:

  1. We must maintain and increase access to telehealth services. Before the pandemic, many providers viewed telehealth visits as largely an experiment. With COVID-19, however, telehealth visits became the norm. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) relaxed regulations around telemedicine, such as waiving the audio-visual requirements for telehealth visits. Looking ahead, steps must be taken to ensure that we maintain and increase access to telehealth services for all Americans. Policy makers, for example, must ensure that telemedicine-related regulatory changes that were implemented during pandemic don’t revert when the emergency period ends. Better access to broadband internet service is also essential. Telemedicine is a critical healthcare resource for rural and home-bound individuals, yet the Pew Research Center has found that nearly two-thirds of rural residents (63%) and close to half of low-income adults (44%) don’t have home broadband internet connections. President Biden’s plan to expand broadband access has the potential to improve healthcare access for both rural and underserved Americans.

  2. Better interoperability is needed to support immunization registries. COVID-19 has presented us with the opportunity to create better systems and processes for storing immunization information. Currently, national certification standards don’t exist for immunization records and registries. No “single source of truth” about vaccinations exists because many states don’t require pharmacies, healthcare providers, and other entities that administer vaccines to report information to registries. To prepare for future pandemics and monitor immunizations for vaccine-preventable illnesses, we need a standard similar to HL7 for immunization registries, as well as regulations that make it mandatory to report vaccine data regardless of payer or place of immunization.

  3. Federal, state and private sector collaboration leads to more productive, coordinated decision-making. The pandemic demonstrated the benefits of cross-sector cooperation and partnerships. Continued work is required on this front to break down silos and deploy resources in the most productive ways possible. Collaboration is also helpful for identifying opportunities to reform regulations. During COVID-19, for instance, the federal government relaxed the FCC’s Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). As a result, calls and texts from healthcare providers and government officials were exempt from TCPA rules. This highlighted how important mobile phone calls and text messages are to consumer engagement. In the months ahead, it would be sensible to modernize TCPA to support patient engagement in today’s digital age.

It’s never been a better time to reflect on the recent past and to think about ways to invest in the long-term well-being of our public health system. A commitment to continuous improvement in the healthcare, governmental and private sectors would truly be a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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