This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders – from around the world and all parts of society – address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
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We have been preparing for COVID-19 but just didn’t know it. While not explicitly designed for this pandemic, key healthcare advances like remote care, home care and pharmaceutical innovation now put our health ecosystem in the position of scaling solutions that would not have been possible otherwise. These advances also hold promise far beyond the current crisis as we look to the future of health and its role in economic and fiscal stability as the world’s population ages. Indeed, it’s both timely and perhaps ironically inauspicious that in the first quarter of the new decade – marking the launch of the UN/WHO Decade of Healthy Ageing – we are living with a pandemic which challenges the core goal for that effort: healthier longevity.
In three key areas, our health ecosystem has been evolving in a way that prepared us not just for COVID-19, but also for the decade’s long-term vision for the 2 billion of us who are over 60 in OECD’s “ageing societies”, where there are already more old than young as we live longer and experiences lower birth-rates.
First, a range of professionals in the health ecosystem are taking on new, important roles. Recent news stories have spotlighted the essential work of nurses, doctors, firemen and hospital workers, but another group is also stepping up and transforming their role: elder caregivers in the home. Indeed, the sad but real death rate of older Europeans in facilities combined with the desire to stay out of hospitals is dramatically increasing the thirst for “care at home” both regarding urgent COVID-19 and related needs as well as general elder care. Elder home care is a cottage industry barely 25 years old but now a core part of our USD 15 trillion Global Silver Economy. It is now global and evolving rapidly during this COVID-19 pandemic to perform essential central roles to oversee, manage and enable healthcare delivery. The result will be a home care service force that looks very different even mid-way through our Decade of Healthy Ageing, with new skills, competencies, education and training. As we come out of COVID-19, we should reflect on how society might benefit from the lessons of this crisis.
Resilient Health Systems: What we are learning from the COVID-19 crisis by Francesca Colombo, Head, Health Division, Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs, OECD
Second, remote care technologies, enabled by artificial intelligence, are moving to the frontlines of monitoring, detection, diagnosis and even treatment. To date, technological advances in remote care have largely been a “nice-to-have” add-on for support and data management within our existing hospital infrastructure. COVID-19 changes this dynamic. When we all want to avoid physically being in a hospital, these technological tools can go right into our home and communities, literally becoming the new standard of care. Telehealth and telemedicine are in greater use today – reportedly advancing 10 years in just one week , as a consequence of COVID-19. And remote care will continue to expand across the Decade of Healthy Ageing, saving lives and bending the health spending curve. Its use in the current context would have been impossible without the advances of the last decade, thus unwittingly preparing us for today’s crisis.
Read the OECD policy brief Testing for COVID-19: A way to lift confinement restrictions and more on Resilient healthcare
Third, we – across the political spectrum – appreciate, welcome and demand private-sector innovation with greater momentum. As we fight COVID-19, new biomedical therapies, vaccines, and health technologies are essential – and critical for the social and economic health of ageing societies in OECD countries. We are now seeing innovation at incredible speed from actors that have swiftly reached into their existing portfolios to retrofit urgent scientific solutions and expand access. Pharmaceutical companies’ medicine chests, research pipeline, staff scientists and, perhaps most importantly, ability to scale have been in development for decades. For example, as scientists work to develop the COVID-19 vaccine, various treatments highlight the different but promising approaches. This “preparation” is invaluable for the immediate crisis and will be central to the goals of the Decade of Healthy Ageing.
Whilst these views may not be reflected in current COVID-19 media coverage, these three areas illustrate that our health systems were better prepared for this pandemic than otherwise assumed. Of course, we were not prepared explicitly for COVID-19, but leaders in elder home care, pharma, technology, health and financial services immediately put into action the fundamentals of their models, which can be scaled for both the current crisis and the health ecosystem in its aftermath.
Many have drawn parallels with World War II, when neither the United Kingdom nor the United States were fully prepared. OECD Secretary-General Gurría himself called for “joint actions to win the war”. Yet, allies were able to ramp up their efforts, mobilise their resources and amplify scale to eventually succeed. Out of this extraordinary mobilisation and scale came not only victory, but also advances and progress that multiplied exponentially in the post-war years. One might draw inspiration from this, and apply these lessons for our post-COVID-19 world.
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