Learning From This War
There’s an old military adage that generals are always fighting the last war. It’s not that they haven’t learned any lessons, it’s more than they learned the wrong lessons. I fear we’re doing that with the COVID pandemic.
The next big health crisis may not come from another COVID variant; it may not be caused by coronavirus at all. Even if we learn lessons from this pandemic, those may not be lessons that will apply to the next big health crisis.
What started me thinking about this is a C4ISRNET interview with Mike Brown, the Director of the Defense Innovation Unit, and DARPA Director Dr. Stefanie Tompkins. Dr. Tompkins and Mr. Brown are both watching the war in the Ukraine closely. As Dr. Tompkins says in the interview, the war is a “really good test” about the programs her agency has invested in and/or is investing in for the future.
E.g., Russia has clear advantages in numerical superiority, and in “traditional” weapons like tanks, airplanes, ships, and artillery, but Ukraine has been able to blunt the invasion through asymmetrical warfare, using things that DARPA helped foster, including Javelin missiles, drones, satellite imagery, secure communications, and GPS. Even Russia’s vaunted cyber capabilities have been overmatched by Ukraine’s own capabilities. Current DARPA investments like hypersonic missiles and AI are being tested.
I’m comforted that DARPA and DIU are learning in real time what lessons their agencies can learn to help fight future wars, but I’m wondering who in our healthcare system, and who in our governments (federal/state/local), are not just fighting COVID but learning the bigger lessons from it to fight future crises.
I trust that smarter people than me are looking at this, but here are some the lessons I hope we’ve learned:
Information: it’s shocking, but we don’t really know how many people have had COVID. We don’t really know how many have it now. We like to think we know how many have been hospitalized and how many have died, but due to reporting inconsistencies those numbers are, at best, approximations.
We need early warning systems, like through wastewater monitoring. We need standardized public health reporting, with real-time data and a central repository in which it can be analyzed. We need easy-to-understand dashboards that both public officials and the public can access and base their decisions on. We can’t be building these during a health crisis.
Supply Chains: just-in-time, globally distributed supply chains are a marvel of modern life, bringing us greater variety of products at more affordable prices, but, in retrospect, we should have understood that in a global health crisis they would prove to be an Achilles heel. Masks and other PPE, ventilators, vaccines and other prescription drugs have all suffered from supply chain issues during the pandemic. Shortages led to unevenly distributed supplies and higher prices.
We’re never going back to the days of local production, but we do need to prioritize what things need to be produced regionally/nationally, how that production can scale in time of crisis, and how that production should be fairly allocated. The mechanisms to do that can’t be built on the fly.
The sick and the dead: Among the many images of the pandemic’s worst (so far) days, some of the most haunting are the ones of hospitals filled to overflowing, with patients on gurneys in hallways, or the refrigerator trucks filled with dead bodies. Our healthcare system’s capabilities for both were simply overwhelmed — as was the healthcare workforce.
Hospital beds are expensive to build, and expensive to maintain. We can’t afford a healthcare system that builds them for the worst case scenario. But we can learn from innovative efforts during the pandemic, like building temporary hospitals that can be expanded or contracted as needed.
Similarly, there has to be a strategy for dealing with dead bodies during a global health crisis, especially one in which those bodies themselves may carry ongoing risks. Existing morgues, mortuaries, and even graveyards may not be sufficient. There needs to be a plan.
Hardest to solve are healthcare workforce shortages. It’s not easy to train new healthcare workers, and retaining them when they’re stressed beyond belief proved to be a challenge. In a crisis, we need them all working at the top of the licenses, able to cross workplaces and even state lines, and properly supplied and compensated. None of those is a “normal” state of affairs for our healthcare system, and all are inexcusable in a crisis.
Telehealth: telehealth seemed to finally gets its day during the pandemic, with relaxed regulation, improved reimbursement, provider adoption, and consumer preference. It took pandemic to make us realize that making sick, potentially contagious, patients travel to get care is not a good idea.
That being said, now that the pandemic is in a more manageable phase, the bloom seems to be off the telehealth rose, with regulations being reapplied, providers not fully incorporating into their practice patterns, and patients returning to in-person visits.
Hey: it’s 2022. We have the technology to do telehealth “right.” Aside from, say, a heart attack or an auto accident, telehealth should always our first course of action. Our licensing, our reimbursements, and our work flows need to facilitate this — not just to prepare for the next health crisis, but simply as part of a 21st century healthcare system.
Communication: One of the most unexpected results of the pandemic is the distrust of public heath advice — vilifying public health officials, spurning mitigation efforts like masking or isolation, and spurring on the already-present anti-vaxx movement. “Science” is seen as in the eye of the beholder. It’s an information war, and health is losing.
We need the tools to fight the health information war more effectively. We need to learn how to communicate more effectively. We need to reestablish faith in science. We need responses to a health care crisis to be a health issue, not a political one.
We will be taken by surprise by the next health crisis. We had plans for a pandemic, but, when it hit, we fumbled every response. Next time we’ll be expecting another COVID, and, if it’s not, we’ll be caught flat-footed again.
The current crisis is, to use Dr. Tompkins’ words, a really good test for whether we’re working on the right things for our next health crisis. I’m not so sure we are.