Wanted: Health futurists
As the world battles the raging coronavirus storm and the fast and sweeping sea changes induced by the pandemic, we need to be as aggressive, fast, and strategic as we can.
We need to see the different dimensions where COVID-19-related changes impacting health are taking shape, observe the trends, offer possible explanations, study their implications, and most importantly provide recommendations to make our health system future-ready.
Arguably the biggest change now is that everyone, literally, is concerned about health. “Health of all for health for all” is more than just a Universal Health Care slogan. From health being a deliverable of the health sector alone to a public good that all sectors have to work on, the concept of “health in all policies” is now more relatable.
The pandemic has effectively changed the discourse from population health to individual health.
Though a good development, this has implications on managing partnerships for health through cross-sectoral collaboration and community engagement.
We need to look into mechanisms for improving national-local, public-private, science-policy, government-community relationships, and move from traditional coordination to real collaboration.
Platforms, agenda, and outcomes of working together in the new normal should be well-defined to satisfy all health stakeholders and spur them to collective action.
With the increase in zoonosis, or diseases transmitted from animals to humans and causing pandemics, the integrity of the environment as a result of human activities and as a petri dish for the emergence of new diseases has come into question. With the imposition and lifting of lockdowns, carbon dioxide levels went down and then up again—unintended public health consequences that relate to climate change mitigation. Our experience with extreme weather events coinciding with the pandemic makes our response more challenging.
However, though a greater call for environmental and ecosystems awareness was triggered by COVID-19, these themes might cause a lot of noise and pose problems of prioritization.
A resilience framework focused on optimizing the response to COVID-19 while also addressing these environmental challenges should be developed. A one-health approach espousing actions on the environment-animal-human interface should be strengthened. Planetary health considerations highlighting the health of both humans and the ecosystems we live in should be propagated.
The rise of big data, artificial intelligence, whole genome sequencing, telemedicine, and digital technology can help us craft innovative strategies to put the pandemic under control. While it is imperative now to adapt to these rapidly evolving trends, it is also crucial to conduct thorough health technology assessments and economic studies to weigh benefits and risks.
Caution should also be made for these technologies not to further widen existing health inequities because they are not accessible to the poor and marginalized.
With the public’s eyes and ears on the government coronavirus response, the demand for effective leadership and responsive governance has expectedly increased. Revisiting existing structures and styles of governance, and exploring citizen participation and mechanisms for participation, may be in order.
At best, we need to ensure that harnessing political opportunities means putting health at the heart of sustainable development and resilience-building in terms of programming and investments, to boost the health capital of the country.
The health system is in dire need of health futurists to help out in navigating the complex and ever-changing currents of health. The future is uncertain but it will come. This pandemic will be over. But for now, let’s seize the greatest opportunity being presented to us by this crisis—to be able to future-proof our health system and leave the legacy of a resilient one, which can protect and nurture our children and generations to come. History will judge us not only for what we did, but also for what we did not.
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Ronald Law is a Filipino physician, public health specialist in emergency and disaster management, and professor of public health. He was formerly an Australian leadership fellow and a US-Asean Fulbright scholar.
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