Pandemic Lessons in Improving the Medical System

One of the most dramatic examples was the abrupt substitution of telemedicine for in-person visits to the doctor’s office. Although telemedicine technology is decades old, the pandemic demonstrated how convenient and effective it can be for many routine medical problems, Dr. Navathe said.

Telemedicine is more efficient and often just as effective as an office visit. It saves time and effort for patients, especially those with limited mobility or who live in remote places. It lowers administrative costs for doctors and leaves more room in office schedules for patients whose care requires in-person visits.

Even more important, the pandemic could force a reckoning with the environmental and behavioral issues that result increasingly in prominent health risks in this country. We need to stop blaming genetics for every ailment and focus more on preventable causes of poor health like a bad diet and inactivity.

Consider, for example, the health status of those who have been most vulnerable to sickness and death from Covid-19. Aside from advanced age, about which we can do nothing, it’s been people with conditions that are often largely preventable: obesity, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease and smoking. Yet most physicians are unable to influence the behaviors that foster these health-robbing conditions.

“Many people need help to make better choices for themselves,” Dr. Navathe said. But the professionals who could be most helpful, like dietitians, physical trainers and behavioral counselors, are rarely covered by health insurance. The time is long overdue for Medicare and Medicaid, along with private insurers, to broaden their coverage, which can save both health and money in the long run.

Policy wonks should also pay more attention to widespread environmental risks to health. Too many Americans live in areas where healthful food is limited and prohibitively expensive and where the built environment offers little or no opportunity to exercise safely.

Individuals, too, have a role to play. The pandemic has fostered “an opportunity for patients to take on a more active role in their care,” Dr. Shrank said in an interview.

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