Iodinated contrast media, used in many imaging exams, was in short supply for about six months, after a Covid-19 lockdown temporarily shuttered a GE Healthcare factory in China, which was a major supplier of the material. As a consequence, doctors in the U.S. were forced to postpone non-emergency monitoring appointments, putting thousands of patients at risk of missing critical, early warning signs of disease progression. While the shortage was originally expected to last until June, it didn’t officially end until the end of September. Now that it’s finally over, it’s time to examine what went wrong.
The pandemic has exposed several cracks in our country’s already fragile healthcare system, from unsustainable levels of clinician burnout to severe gaps in equitable access to care. The signs are clear: Our healthcare system isn’t prepared for the stressors that future decades will undoubtedly bring.
Fortunately, there are several ways we can improve our adaptability and resilience to these stressors, and adopting medical technologies should be the first step. In fact, devices that are already being used in and outside the clinic can improve our resiliency to supply-chain disruptions and 21st-century instability.
Take telemedicine, for example. Throughout the pandemic, virtual appointments alleviated pressure on hospitals and patients – especially for immunosuppressed groups – and ensured continuity of care. Virtual appointments clearly have a place in a post-pandemic world, too. Telehealth is being utilized 38 times more than before the pandemic, ranging from 13 percent to 17 percent across all specialties, and 92 percent of consumers report preferring a virtual care option when searching for a new provider.
As an extension of telemedicine and virtual care, remote patient monitoring (RPM) also has the potential to help meet patient needs, while reducing pressure on the system. Technologies that record and transmit patient health data, such as pacemaker information or glucose levels, can create a log of accurate, real-time health information that can help inform disease management and treatment decisions, while removing the need for providers to manually record data. Though this technology has a long way to go before it’s considered the standard of care – as of June 2022, only 25 percent of healthcare leaders report that their practice offers RPM – studies have demonstrated that RPM combined with health coaching can make a sustained improvement in patient well-being.
It is also worth noting that fewer trips to the hospital via car or ambulance, and fewer resources needed to perform scans and surgeries will have a positive impact on the carbon output of the healthcare industry as a whole – a multi-pronged resilience strategy in and of itself, as improving the health of the planet will improve our own as well.
Moving beyond invasive procedures whenever possible is another resiliency strategy worth exploring. Because of the reduced staffing required to sedate and monitor patients, shortened hospital stays, and less overall time in the operating room, minimally invasive surgery (MIS) could help bridge the gap between understaffed hospitals – which was a bubbling issue even before the pandemic – and rising patient need.
Blood biopsies, which can be used in place of CT scans for cancer patients or traditional biopsies in organ transplant patients, are another example. In organ transplants, these biopsies could have a similar effect as MIS by reducing the resources and labor involved in a traditional biopsy, which requires several providers and anesthesia.
After years of gradual progress, it would appear that liquid biopsies in cancer care are beginning to come into their own: Just this month, the European Society for Medical Oncology released new guidelines that support liquid biopsies’ use in guiding treatment decisions, which could help spare patients from those costly, uncomfortable chemotherapy regimens whenever possible.
Of course, this is not to say that materials associated with these blood tests will never experience a shortage of their own. However, being able to use these biopsies and revert back to CT scans or traditional biopsies, only when necessary, would help create a more adaptable model of care.
As supply chain disruptions continue to threaten public health, it’s time to think about how we should use technology to build a stronger, more resilient system. Bolstering adaptability to changing circumstances and stressors is imperative if we are to meet the health needs of the U.S. population in the coming decades. We have several technologies, such as the examples I mention, already at our disposal. All that’s left to do is integrate them into the standard of care – ideally, before the next global health crisis.
Photo: freedigitalphotos user Salvatore Vuono