By Brad Younggren, MD - 98point6
Our society functions on the foundation of numerous social contracts: public education, civil liberties, fair taxes, criminal justice. The crises of this year have tested America’s social contracts in unprecedented ways and brought our nation to a time that will someday be reflected upon as a turning point. Yet our healthcare system, the importance of which we are now starkly reminded daily, persists outside the bounds of our social contracts—not fully embraced as a collective pursuit. Healthcare in America continues to be largely viewed as an institution citizens engage with on a very individualized level. We now face an opportunity to embrace a new take and work as a team to save lives.
The systemic view of health as a pursuit of self must shift if we are going to successfully contain and curb this pandemic. In a commencement speech in June, our country’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci said, "Now is the time, if ever there was one, for us to care selflessly about one another." His words are more than an inspiration to young minds. They are a call to action for all of us, to reimagine health and healthcare, as a social contract designed for the participation and benefit of all.
Altering society’s legacy approach to healthcare, though, will require a fundamental and widespread change of heart. A recent Los Angeles Times article pointed to the many challenges experts have faced in their efforts to instill community-first health measures as examples of a “fiercely independent culture” wary of public health interventions. This also has been evident in nationwide resistance to stay-at-home mandates, which according to data gathered by the University of Maryland early on in the pandemic, were followed by roughly 35 percent of the population. Independence is part of who we are as a society in America, a characteristic that while admirable in most circumstances, is now making it difficult to contain the coronavirus.
Advocacy group Families USA released a report that an estimated 5.4 million Americans lost their health insurance between February and May 2020. This is the largest loss of healthcare coverage on record, and yet another consequence of the pandemic that underscores the importance of caring for each other as communities, Americans, and global citizens. The inherent interconnectedness of health—from attitudes, prevention, and establishing immunities, to responding to an epidemic like the flu or COVID-19—can no longer be ignored. We must bring health, and primary care, into the foreground as communal priorities and endeavors.
Because COVID-19 disproportionately affects the most vulnerable, it’s up to the whole community to think of others before themselves. We need to shift behaviors, physically distance from our loved ones, stay home, and wear face coverings. While these changes may feel isolating at times, many people are doing the right thing. Pew Research recently reported that 65 percent of U.S. adults say that they have personally worn a mask in stores or other businesses all or most of the time in the past month. Countless celebrities and social media influencers have leveraged their platforms to promote staying home, mask wearing, and social distancing in unifying and lighthearted ways that remind us of the power of working together. We need more of this, and more understanding that a community-first focus will be the thing that carries us through to the other side of the crisis.
Medically-based technology innovation, led by doctors and public health experts, will help as well. The industry is primed to think about care in new ways and embrace solutions that take the lift-off of frontline workers while ensuring patient access and treatment. Primary care physicians, who are critical in improving overall health outcomes, can extend their reach through virtual care and other technology-driven solutions that prioritize quality care and access. Virtual care and telehealth are making it possible for millions of Americans to continue receiving quality care while reducing exposure. These platforms also support the prioritization of primary care by reducing barriers to access for underserved, homeless, and rural communities and reducing the costs of connecting with a physician. Working collaboratively to fuel technology innovation and adoption is yet another way our society can rewrite a new social contract for health.
In a herd, animals protect each other from predators, share food and ensure survival, all on instinct, without consideration of self. It is their innate social contract. We likewise rely upon our own kind to endure. If we are going to get to the other side of this pandemic with our values intact, if we are going to eliminate health disparities and change our systems for the betterment of all, we must behave as a single, cohesive community. This means following public health guidelines, lifting marginalized groups, adopting new ways of receiving care, and innovating with technology, so that the health of the population can rise above the preferences of any one individual. We’re seeing this model work in other countries, where high priority is being placed on protecting the vulnerable and eradicating the virus. Americans can do this too. Let’s seize the opportunity to reconsider how we pursue health and begin consciously caring for others.
About The Author
Dr. Brad Younggren is Chief Medical Officer at 98point6.