Here’s How the Pandemic Shaped Health Care Accessibility, According to Experts

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Laura Porter / Verywell

Key Takeaways

  • Though the COVID-19 pandemic challenges health systems in many ways, providers say it also created opportunity to innovate new solutions.
  • Telehealth can make care more accessible and will likely remain a tool for providers even after the pandemic.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic brought to light many new and long-standing health disparities. Experts say addressing these is key to making all people healthier.

In a panel titled "Your Money, Your Health," hosted by Verywell and Investopedia on Tuesday, experts gathered to discuss accessibility of health services in the U.S. and the future of health care.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated some shortcomings of the U.S. health system, as seen in the spread of health disinformation, stalls in medical device supply chains, and significant disparities in health outcomes for certain minority groups. Still, experts say that through the determination and creativity of healthcare workers—from clinicians to technical engineers—health systems are now better set up for future success.

And while there is still a long way to go to improve the accessibility to care for many communities, advancements in telehealth have broken down some barriers and transformed how people receive care.

James Merlino, MD, Chief Clinical Transformation Officer at Cleveland Clinic, says that healthcare providers have demonstrated resilience and doggedness in caring for patients during the pandemic, and he expects to see that carry into the future.  

“Innovation has been accelerating during the pandemic. We're doing things that we didn't think were possible and we're seeing that in the outcomes of COVID patients,” Merlino told the panel. “Relative to the future, we should be optimistic.”

How Telehealth Is Transforming Healthcare

When COVID-19 made it unsafe for people to gather with friends, co-workers, and loved ones, technology filled the void of personal interaction. And it filled a void for patient/provider interaction too. In lieu of in-person appointments, care teams can now review test results and scans with patients over video call. Therapists are regularly meeting with clients online. Patients experiencing urgent care issues can get prescriptions without stepping into a doctor’s office.

“I would say that before the pandemic, there was some hesitation around telemedicine and telehealth and whether or not the quality of care could be upheld if you were seeing patients predominantly through a digital or virtual media,” says Melynda Barnes, MD, Chief Medical Officer at Ro. “That has proven false many times over.”

Virtual platforms have also been a critical tool for connecting people socially and with mental health professionals. Plus, online platforms can help eliminate certain barriers to health care access, like transportation costs.

Rather than a shoddy substitute for face-to-face interaction, Haesue Jo, LMFT, Head of Clinical Operations at BetterHelp, says that virtual meet-ups have become a key part of how many Americans date, conduct business, and maintain their social lives.

“If it's not safe for you to get into big groups to connect with other people to create meaningful experiences and memories in person, we have this thing right in front of us that allows us to connect,” Jo says.

Melynda Barnes, MD, Chief Medical Officer at Ro

Before the pandemic, there was some hesitation around telemedicine and telehealth and whether or not the quality of care could be upheld if you were seeing patients predominantly through a digital or virtual media. That has proven false many times over.

— Melynda Barnes, MD, Chief Medical Officer at Ro

Addressing Disparities in Care

Despite the fact telehealth technology is available, panelists said its benefits are not evenly felt.

“In the U.S. we have the best of technology and access, but sometimes that access is disproportionate,” says Jessica Shepherd, MD, MBA, Chief Medical Officer at Verywell Health. “[The pandemic] actually really highlighted the disproportionate care and disparities in health care that we have in the U.S.”

Communities of color are disproportionately likely to be hospitalized for and die of COVID-19. Low-income people, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people are more likely to experience a toll on their mental health and financial well-being during the pandemic, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Achieving a healthy society requires a strong effort to “root out racism” within healthcare systems and in society broadly, says James Madara, MD, CEO and Executive Vice President of the American Medical Association.

“We aspire to high quality care and safety. If we have populations that have very different kinds of health inequities, there's a glass ceiling on what we can do as a nation,” Madara says.

One way clinicians are able to address some of these disparities during the pandemic is to connect with patients across state lines through telehealth.

Barnes, who is licensed to practice in every state plus D.C., says that giving patients the freedom to choose their practitioner can help mitigate trust issues surrounding the vaccines and health care more broadly.

“As a Black woman, as a physician, I can see patients who are looking for a doctor that looks like them,” Barnes says. “You have those doctors giving culturally competent care and then also sharing that care with their colleagues and teaching them about community differences.”

Making Telehealth Physically Accessible

Even if they're making virtual consultations, providers need ample supplies to provide medical care. Throughout the pandemic, providers have experienced a shortage of COVID-19 tests and many other medical devices.

Supply chains can be complex and rely on the work of technicians and manufacturers, as well as strong partnerships between the public and private sectors, says Erik Anderson, President of Global Services at Hologic Inc.

There’s more that goes into each medical device and technological system than many people realize, he says. To create a COVID-19 laboratory test, for instance, the makers of plastic tubes, caps and swabs must align financially and in their capacity to create enough of each component. Developing those partnerships to address demand for these devices has been a challenge, he says.

“These service folks have absolutely been heroes throughout this pandemic,” Anderson says.

Communication is Key

Panelists emphasized that information about COVID-19—or any health issue—is only useful if it’s understandable.

“We all have a responsibility to communicate very clearly, very simply, and repeatedly about what people need to know about how to take care of themselves, how to protect themselves, and about the treatments and the vaccines that are available,” Merlino says. “We have to do more to control the narrative.”

Merlino says it’s key that health providers, government bodies, and other communicators are sharing clear, cohesive messages to the public. Minimizing confusion about topics like the COVID-19 vaccines can also limit the spread of disinformation and misinformation.

One way to make information more accessible is to write for a sixth-grade reading level so that a broader audience can understand it, Barnes says. Using inclusive imagery in communications materials can also help people feel connected to the information.

Verywell launched a Health Divide series this month, which aims to investigate and address disparities in health outcomes. Such initiatives can empower readers to take more informed decisions about their care.

“Even in the depths of despair that some of us may have felt through this time, we have to be optimistic,” Shepherd said.

What This Means For You

Some practices that were implemented during the pandemic may remain even after COVID-19 risk subsides. Medical and mental health professionals from our panel say new tools like video visits have proven useful at increasing accessibility and improving care.

By Claire Bugos
Claire Bugos is a health and science reporter and writer and a 2020 National Association of Science Writers travel fellow.