How will digital health evolve? Will cost containment come back? Are we prepared for the next pandemic? Will mental health remain as a priority? These are common questions Economist Impact gets from stakeholders in health, nearly two-and-a-half years since covid-19 first dominated the world’s agenda. While it’s challenging to separate passing fads from long-term drivers, there are clear themes that will rightly shape the future of health. However, the path each takes is not predetermined—at least not yet.
Here are five important trends we are tracking in a post-pandemic world of health:
Is covid-19 really over?
In most of the world, the pendulum has already swung from one end to the other and back again with responses to covid-19. Long periods of strict mask adherence, widespread testing and restrictions on social interaction have given way to activities that are nearing pre-pandemic levels. A reason for this shift is due to human nature, where the combination of exhaustion and desire for normalcy drive current behaviors. However, another factor stems from changing perceptions about the virus, levels of risk posed and the anticipated movement to endemic status.
There are positive signs, such as the ratio of cases to hospitalisations and the effectiveness of vaccines, indicating a different stage in the covid-19 evolution, but it’s also clear the path forward will be both uneven and unpredictable. Countries employed varying tactics during the pandemic, from “zero-covid” strategies in China and New Zealand to a mixed-policy approach in America and the UK, but all have experienced similar or worse metrics this month, than a year before. Also, with mounting evidence about long-term health concerns for those with prior infections, we are likely to see more—not fewer— risks in the near future.
In this sense, there is a need for a balanced approach moving forward. Instead of “learning to live”with the virus, affected stakeholders—health, economic, societal—can seek out nuanced policies and integrated actions to mitigate future threats. The scars of the recent past should also spur proactive monitoring and preparation as frantic, reactive efforts across the world have already proven too costly. As covid-19 maintains an active presence, these actions allow for a greater chance of success and will also foster an environment better placed to deal with future pandemics.
What to do with the silent pandemic?
Many health experts argue that another major crisis had been prevalent before covid-19, but its slow-building nature ensured it did not attract nearly as much attention. The “silent pandemic”of non-communicable diseases (NCDs)—diabetes, cancer, respiratory and cardiovascular conditions—had plagued advanced and emerging economies for decades. This stems from a combination of underlying lifestyle choices and ageing populations. While progress had been made, countries were still falling behind targets such as Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3.4 and the reduction of premature deaths from NCDs.
The pandemic not only halted progress but led to regression: postponement of public health screenings, disruptions in quality treatments, lower patient engagement, worsening healthy behaviors and overstretched healthcare workforce. In the past year, as much of the world has attempted to return to past care dynamics, these factors have led to a “double burden” with NCDs, where the backlog of cases weighing down fragile health systems is putting the “silent pandemic” on an even more precarious path.
Tackling this will be an ongoing effort for years to come. However, positive ramifications from the pandemic—new tools in health, better understanding of wellbeing, active support from outside of health systems—can lead to improved interventions and outcomes. A pertinent example is the current dialogue and action around mental health—in the workplace, in communities and the mainstream media— raising awareness and promoting openness to combat a critical issue. Sustaining that trend across different NCDs could lead to lasting change.
What will technology’s role be in the future health ecosystem?
Technology has long offered great potential for health; the challenge has not been generating innovative ideas, but translating them into real-world solutions. The pandemic experience—either through necessity or real progress—has in part bridged the existing gap, providing a clear roadmap for the application of tools such as “augmented intelligence” in proactive decision-making. This type of problem-solving goes beyond health, intersecting with societal challenges such as ensuring the important principle of medical neutrality in conflict zones.
The question of who will lead the way in generating impactful solutions remains. For years, expectations have been high for technology firms increasing their health presence, yet measured impact has been inconsistent at best. However, the pandemic has accelerated this movement with Alphabet’s growing investment in health and Amazon’s recent acquisition of a US primary care entity.. This trend is expected to continue, especially as the technology industry applies lessons from its role in the pandemic response towards more mainstream healthcare needs.
Where is health’s voice in the sustainability movement?
Health is intertwined with one of the world’s most important movements: the urgent need for global action towards a more sustainable planet. The recent heatwave across many parts of the world is another reminder of the importance of sustainability efforts and its relationship with health. As Natalia Kanem from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) aptly stated at last year’s World Health Summit, “climate change affects poverty, affects hunger, certainly affects health”.
Acting upon that clear and logical connection will be a critical area of focus for health. From more eco-friendly healthcare supply chains, to access to sustainable food systems for balanced diets, a multitude of opportunities exist for stakeholders to assume greater leadership. Not only will health further strengthen the need for increased investment and attention on this issue, a “health in all policies” approach will also ensure a holistic, societal view around sustainability goals.
Will the pandemic foster a new age or will we revert to past norms?
One of the most critical lessons from the pandemic is found throughout history—the power of collective action and singular focus on a shared goal. In the case of covid-19, this was manifested through numerous collaborations: vaccine development and distribution, research and public health communication and societal interventions to slow the spread of a dangerous new virus. Actors that embraced a dedication to the “common good” instead of individual objectives, generated clear results: findings from an Economist Impact study on pandemic response is one example of many that identified stakeholder collaboration as a vital element of success.
The opportunity exists to employ the same tactic for the biggest issues that rose in importance following the pandemic: health equity, sustainable innovation and holistic wellness. Underpinning this window for seismic change is a greater recognition from actors in health and society that known problems in health require new approaches. That recognition, along with existing models of success, such as a cross-sectoral group of actors working together for healthy ageing, offer a roadmap to replicate in the future.
Tackling these issues requires the same collaborative spirit and long-run view; two dynamics that are difficult to maintain beyond moments of crisis. Indeed, a return to short-term focused, incentive-driven and siloed activity in health is likely. To ensure the window is not lost, it is vital to reframe the benefits of wellness in a way that aligns shared goals between a wider group of actors. The vision laid out by business leaders, who increasingly see health as a strategic imperative, is a signal of a larger paradigm shift in how we can collectively work towards a world of better health for all.