Turning Crisis Into Opportunity

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Coronavirus reminds me of Sputnik.

Sputnik was the first satellite that entered the Earth’s orbit. Its successful launch by Russia in October 1957 caught the world’s attention. Sputnik launched the space age, led to a bitter competition between the U.S. and Russia to see who could conquer space. Just a dozen years later, the first man on the moon was an American.

The launch of Sputnik was the topic of conversation for weeks and months. It not only launched the space age, it also exposed how far behind the U.S. science education was compared to Russia.

What emerged from these conversations was national action. There was a noticeable and new emphasis on science throughout the educational system. We all wanted to win the space race. Money flowed from the

Congress to create new programs so that we could overtake the Russians. By the time President Kennedy said we would land a man on the moon, it had already became a universal national goal.

The coronavirus pandemic reminds me of Sputnik. Just as Sputnik riveted us in 1957, so too coronavirus rivets us today. To be sure, coronavirus threatens all of our health and has changed how we live, shop,  interact and do business, and thus is on a much larger scale than Sputnik.  But coronavirus also has exposed lapses in our health care system that can be fixed only with the same kind of Sputnik-like focus that engulfed the U.S. in 1957 and into the next decades.

We see today that we do not have the hospital capacity to handle a pandemic; that we do not have enough protective equipment for our health care workers; that we do not have the epidemiology needed to gather accurate information on disease incidence; that we are reliant on other countries for medical products and essential ingredients for our pharmaceuticals; and more.  In essence the plan we had was not adequate to the task at hand. 

Once we emerge from the immediate threat of the coronavirus, we must have a Sputnik-like national dedication to address the critical needs that are clearly in focus.

We need to figure out how many hospital beds we need during non-epidemic times and how we can readily increase that capacity during epidemics.

Because we now have the experience, we must increase our stockpile of protective equipment and medical supplies so in future epidemics we will be able to protect our health care workers. And we should consider increasing the number of stockpile locations from 12.

We need to better utilize technology so we can more quickly collect reliable epidemiological data by connecting national, state and local sources.

We need to become more self-sufficient in manufacturing medical products and especially in producing pharmaceuticals.

In other words, we need a better, realistic plan.

But that’s just for starters.

In the future medical care will rely heavily on telemedicine. Health care professionals will diagnose and treat by examining patients via the internet. For acute emergency cases, ambulances will be equipped with the ability for doctors to examine and treat patients while in the ambulance. Vital patient information such as blood pressure, temperature, pulse, and blood sugar will be gathered continuously just by wearing a watch. Medical records will be readily and easily updated to be quickly accessed wherever the patient is.

In fact, we already can do all this. The technology exists. We just haven’t adopted a Sputnik-like dedication to bringing all these technologies to our health care delivery system on a national basis. But to do this, it means all the stakeholders must let go of their old ways and embrace new ideas and practices. This may be our biggest challenge.

Mail order services today can tell me everything I’ve ordered from them and what products I’ve looked at on their web sites. Package delivery companies can tell me on a minute to minute basis where my package is and exactly when it will be or has been delivered. My car dealer can tell me what repairs might be needed in the future. Artificial intelligence can predict who I will vote for, which products I might buy, where I’d like to vacation.

Health care is very far behind in adopting technology. We are seeing that lapse played out now on an international scale.

We are now undergoing changes in how we live, shop, work, interact. This is our immediate challenge.

But we need to look beyond the immediate threat. We need the same kind of commitment to advancement for our health care system that the nation adopted after Russia launched Sputnik. It took a dozen years to reach the moon but we did it.

This crisis presents a unique opportunity to identify what must be done to improve and modernize the systems that will enable us to manage similar health threats in the future. We must not miss that opportunity.

Now is our Sputnik moment.

Wayne Pines is president of healthcare at APCO Worldwide in Washington, D.C., and is a former associate commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.  wpines@apcoworldwide.com

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