“Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Associate Justice, U.S. Supreme Court
The economic, medical, political and psychological tsunami unleashed by the COVID-19 virus is unlike anything we have seen in our lifetime. The traumatic disruption of 9-11 was limited in comparison to our current crisis. While impossible to include up to the minute statistics, already more than 15 million cases have been confirmed with at least 620,000 deaths, and U.S. unemployment is approximately 11%. Is it possible that any good will come of these months of tragedy and lock-down? What do we know about the immediate and longer-term consequences on us as humans, on the health care community and neurosurgery? I have been given the monumental task of trying to peer into that future as the Neurosurgery Blog’s focus on COVID-19 draws to a close.
Silver Linings: Our World
Today, the canals of Venice are clear, and dolphins have returned — an amazing and rapid transformation. During the pandemic lock-down, our environment improved dramatically with blue skies seen across India, air pollution around major cities visibly and measurably improved, leading to improved health, and images from space revealing stunning clarity. Beyond recognizing how reversible the damage to our physical world is, we have witnessed the very best of humanity in our communities. Touching stories have filled our news feeds:
- People shopping and doing necessary errands for those on lock-down;
- Chalking messages of hope onto neighborhood sidewalks;
- Communities coming together to create unique and joyful celebrations for graduations, birthdays, weddings, and other meaningful moments;
- Airbnb providing emergency housing to frontline responders; and
- Celebrities and authors providing free book readings and enhancing the well-being of sequestered children.
These represent the many things individuals are doing every day to make the lives of those around them safer and more fulfilling.
To fill the void left by social distancing, many have become facile with video technology to provide essential human contact during long weeks of isolation. Religious services, theaters, concerts and more have rapidly adapted to provide their communities invaluable connection and engagement.
Silver Linings: Health Care and Neurosurgery
As grim headlines unfolded, the health care community united. Traditionally competitive institutions have reached beyond those boundaries to share expertise, resources and staff to provide the best care for patients. Necessary innovation has blossomed creating change that will survive beyond COVID-19 such as:
- Virtual national/international educational symposia;
- Many fellowship and residency interviews are being conducted through remote technology; and
- Accessible and up-to-date medical education for all providers to maximize the effectiveness of the workforce.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) authorized payment for telemedicine services, with many private insurance companies following on their heels. This marks a crucial advance and should herald a new era of health care delivery. A world free of many of the inconveniences associated with a visit to the doctor — days off work, parking, travel, navigating complex hospital corridors — is no longer a figment of the imagination. Reimbursement for these services will drive technological innovation that will enhance the value and experience of these visits. While there will always be an essential role for the face-to-face appointment —especially in the surgical disciplines such as neurosurgery — and the importance of human touch, the provision of telemedicine care should be more comfortable and more convenient.
Neurosurgery stepped up and came together in many meaningful ways. Many of our national and international organizations, as well as neurosurgical publications, provided state of the moment information to connect us around the world. Neurosurgeons continued to keep their practices afloat to provide care to those with emergent conditions despite considerable risks to themselves and, by extension, their loved ones. Many stepped into roles of supporting other physicians overwhelmed by the sheer volume and acuity of COVID-19 patients. In contrast, others assumed leadership roles helping their hospitals and communities in many ways — designing systems for surge redeployment of staff and creating new operating room policies to enhance airflow. Each institution has found ways to protect their resident team while ensuring they continue to receive valuable education and feel fully supported during a time of great strain.
Not All Roses
Still, many vulnerabilities were revealed, and scars will be left from the crisis. Neurosurgery lost one of our most beloved colleagues when COVID-19 took the life of James T. Goodrich, MD, PhD. Questions arose, such as how could things as simple as masks, gloves and gowns become such a challenge to procure? Known health care disparities were shown to exist, likely reflective of such differences at every level of medical care, but poignantly and tragically demonstrated in COVID-19 related deaths, morbidity and availability of resources. This was further brought into the spotlight by the death of George P. Floyd, Jr. and the dramatic national response that followed. Finally, people learned it isn’t so glamorous or pleasant to wear a mask, as neurosurgeons have known our whole careers.
Most meaningful change does evolve incrementally; however, cataclysmic events like the COVID-19 crisis instigate sudden and dramatic change. Given the potential for positive unintended consequences, here is my wish list (please add your own!) for enduring gifts we deserve from COVID-19:
- A deep appreciation not only for the fragility of the world around us but also its capacity for resiliency — let us remain mindful of how all of our actions impact the earth, our health, and our fellow humans;
- A new dawn of real innovation in medicine that builds new frontiers of access and engagement by leveraging the best of augmented intelligence and melding it with the personal touch that only humans can provide;
- Restoration of travel because of all the good it brings but with a profound sensitivity on how to preserve the beauty of the natural and man-made world; and
- A renewed and sustaining appreciation for the difficult work done by neurosurgeons and all physicians, along with their dedicated teams, to care for patients and their loved ones every day.
We thank our readers for following Neurosurgery Blog as it recorded the real-time impacts of the COVID-19 global pandemic. As the world emerges from these trying times, we invite you to continue the conversation on Twitter by following and using the hashtag #COVID19. With new therapeutics and promising vaccines, the glimmer of hope becomes stronger with each passing day.
Deborah L. Benzil, MD, FACS, FAANS
Cleveland Clinic, Vice-Chair, Neurosurgery