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What has the pandemic revealed about the US health care system — and what needs to change?

Seven MIT researchers see lessons and opportunities for US health care.
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Headshots of seven MIT professors, plus one square with a stethoscope on a US flag
Representing the fields of medicine, anthropology, political science, health economics, science writing, and medical humanities, seven MIT researchers articulate opportunities for U.S. health care to become more equitable, effective, coherent, and prepared for the next pandemic. Top row, (l-r): Dwai Banerjee, Andrea Campbell, Jonathan Gruber, Jeffrey Harris. Bottom row (l-r): Erica Caple James, Seth Mnookin, Parag Pathak.
Photos courtesy of MIT SHASS Communications.

With vaccinations for Covid-19 now underway across the nation, MIT SHASS Communications asked seven MIT scholars engaged in health and health care research to share their views on what the pandemic has revealed about the U.S. health care system — and what needs to change. Representing the fields of medicine, anthropology, political science, health economics, science writing, and medical humanities, these researchers articulate a range of opportunities for U.S. health care to become more equitable, more effective and coherent, and more prepared for the next pandemic.

Dwaipayan Banerjee, associate professor of science, technology, and society

On the heels of Ebola, Covid-19 put to rest a persistent, false binary between diseases of the rich and diseases of the poor. For several decades, health care policymakers have labored under the impression of a great epidemiological transition. This theory holds that the developed world has reached a stage in its history that it no longer needs to worry about communicable diseases. These "diseases of the poor" are only supposed to exist in distant places with weak governments and struggling economies. Not here in the United States.

On the surface, Covid-19 made clear that diseases do not respect national boundaries. More subtly, it tested the hypothesis that the global north no longer need concern itself with communicable disease. And in so doing, it undermined our assumptions about global north health-care infrastructures as paradigmatically more evolved.

Over the last decades, the United States has been focused on developing increasingly sophisticated drugs. While this effort has ushered in several technological breakthroughs, a preoccupation with magic-bullet cures has distracted from public health fundamentals. The spread of the virus revealed shortages in basic equipment and hospitals beds, the disproportionate effects of disease on the marginalized, the challenge of prevention rather than cure, the limits of insurance-based models to provide equitable care, and our unacknowledged dependence on the labor of underpaid health care workers.

To put it plainly, the pandemic did not create a crisis in U.S. health care. For many in the United States, crisis was already a precondition of care, delivered in emergency rooms and negotiated through denied insurance claims. As we begin to imagine a "new normal," we must ask questions about the old. The pandemic made clear that the "normal" had been a privilege only for a few well-insured citizens. In its wake, can we imagine a health-care system that properly compensates labor and recognizes health care as a right, rather than a privilege only available to the marginalized when an endemic crisis is magnified by a pandemic emergency? 

Andrea Campbell, professor of political science

No doubt, the pandemic reveals the dire need to invest in public-health infrastructure to better monitor and address public-health threats in the future, and to expand insurance coverage and health care access. To my mind, however, the pandemic’s greatest significance is in revealing the racism woven into American social and economic policy.

Public policies helped create geographic and occupational segregation to begin with; inadequate racist and classist public policies do a poor job of mitigating their effects. Structural racism manifests at the individual level, with people of color suffering worse housing and exposure to toxins, less access to education and jobs, greater financial instability, poorer physical and mental health, and higher infant mortality and shorter lifespans than their white counterparts. Residential segregation means many white Americans do not see these harms.

Structural racism also materializes at the societal level, a colossal waste of human capital that undercuts the nation’s economic growth, as social and economic policy expert Heather McGhee shows in her illuminating book, "The Sum of Us." These society-wide costs are hidden as well; it is difficult to comprehend the counterfactual of what growth would look like if all Americans could prosper.

My hope is that the pandemic renders this structural inequality visible. There is little point in improving medical or public-health systems if we fail to address the structural drivers of poor health. We must seize the opportunity to improve housing, nutrition, and schools; to enforce regulations on workplace safety, redlining, and environmental hazards; and to implement paid sick leave and paid family leave, among other changes. It has been too easy for healthy, financially stable, often white Americans to think the vulnerable are residual. The pandemic has revealed that they are in fact central. It’s time to invest for a more equitable future.

Jonathan Gruber, Ford Professor of Economics

The Covid-19 pandemic is the single most important health event of the past 100 years, and as such has enormous implications for our health care system. Most significantly, it highlights the importance of universal, non-discriminatory health insurance coverage in the United States. The primary source of health insurance for Americans is their job, and with unemployment reaching its highest level since the Great Depression, tens of millions of workers lost, at least temporarily, their insurance coverage.

Moreover, even once the economy recovers, millions of Americans will have a new preexisting condition, Covid-19. That’s why it is critical to build on the initial successes of the Affordable Care Act to continue to move toward a safety net that provides insurance options for all without discrimination.

The pandemic has also illustrated the power of remote health care. The vast majority of patients in the United States have had their first experience with telehealth during the pandemic and found it surprisingly satisfactory. More use of telehealth can lead to increased efficiency of health care delivery as well as allowing our system to reach underserved areas more effectively.

The pandemic also showed us the value of government sponsorship of innovation in the health sciences. The speed with which the vaccines were developed is breathtaking. But it would not have been possible without decades of National Institute of Health investments such as the Human Genome Project, nor without the large incentives put in place by Operation Warp Speed. Even in peacetime, the government has a critical role to play in promoting health care innovation

The single most important change that we need to make to be prepared for the next pandemic is to recognize that proper preparation is, by definition, overpreparation. Unless we are prepared for the next pandemic that doesn’t happen, we won’t possibly be ready for the next pandemic that does.

This means working now, while the memory is fresh, to set up permanent, mandatorily funded institutions to do global disease surveillance, extensive testing of any at-risk populations when new diseases are detected, and a permanent government effort to finance underdeveloped vaccines and therapeutics.

Jeffrey Harris, professor emeritus of economics and a practicing physician

The pandemic has revealed the American health care system to be a non-system. In a genuine system, health care providers would coordinate their services. Yet when Elmhurst Hospital in Queens was overrun with patients, some 3,500 beds remained available in other New York hospitals. In a genuine system, everyone would have a stable source of care at a health maintenance organization (HMO). While our country has struggled to distribute the Covid-19 vaccine efficiently and equitably, Israel, which has just such an HMO-based system, has broken world records for vaccination.

Germany, which has all along had a robust public health care system, was accepting sick patients from Italy, Spain, and France. Meanwhile, U.S. hospitals were in financial shock and fee-for-service-based physician practices were devastated. We need to move toward a genuine health care system that can withstand shocks like the Covid-19 pandemic. There are already models out there to imitate.

We need to strengthen our worldwide pandemic and global health crisis alert systems. Despite concerns about China’s early attempts to suppress the bad news about Covid-19, the world was lucky that Chinese investigators posted the full genome of SARS-CoV-2 in January 2020 — the singular event that triggered the search for a vaccine. With the recurrent threat of yet another pandemic — after H1N1, SARS, MERS, Ebola, and now SARS-Cov-2 — along with the anticipated health consequences of global climate change, we can’t simply cross our fingers and hope to get lucky again.

Erica Caple James, associate professor of medical anthropology and urban studies

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed some of the limits of the American medical and health care system and demonstrated many of the social determinants of health. Neither the risks of infection nor the probability of suffering severe illness are equal across populations. Each depends on socioeconomic factors such as type of employment, mode of transportation, housing status, environmental vulnerability, and capacity to prevent spatial exposure, as well as “preexisting” health conditions like diabetes, obesity, and chronic respiratory illness.

Such conditions are often determined by race, ethnicity, gender, and “biology,” but also poverty, cultural and linguistic facility, health literacy, and legal status. In terms of mapping the prevalence of infection, it can be difficult to trace contacts among persons who are regular users of medical infrastructure. However, it can be extraordinarily difficult to do so among persons who lack or fear such visibility, especially when a lack of trust can color patient-clinician relationships.

One’s treatment within medical and health care systems may also reflect other health disparities — such as when clinicians discount patient symptom reports because of sociocultural, racial, or gender stereotypes, or when technologies are calibrated to the norm of one segment of the population and fail to account for the severity of disease in others.

The pandemic has also revealed the biopolitics and even the “necropolitics” of care — when policymakers who are aware that disease and death fall disproportionately in marginal populations make public-health decisions that deepen the risks of exposure of these more vulnerable groups. The question becomes, “Whose lives are deemed disposable?” Similarly, which populations — and which regions of the world — are prioritized for treatment and protective technologies like vaccines and to what degree are such decisions politicized or even racialized?

Although no single change will address all of these disparities in health status and access to treatment, municipal, state, and federal policies aimed at improving the American health infrastructure — and especially those that expand the availability and distribution of medical resources to underserved populations — could greatly improve health for all.

Seth Mnookin, professor of science writing

The Covid-19 pandemic adds yet another depressing data point to how the legacy and reality of racism and white supremacy in America is lethal to historically marginalized groups. A number of recent studies have shown that Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native Americans have a significantly higher risk of infection, hospitalization, and death compared to white Americans.

The reasons are not hard to identify: Minority populations are less likely to have access to healthy food options, clean air and water, high-quality housing, and consistent health care. As a result, they’re more likely to have conditions that have been linked to worse outcomes in Covid patients, including diabetes, hypertension, and obesity.

Marginalized groups are also more likely to be socioeconomically disadvantaged — which means they’re more likely to work in service and manufacturing industries that put them in close contact with others, use public transportation, rely on overcrowded schools and day cares, and live in closer proximity to other households. Even now, more vaccines are going to wealthier people who have the time and technology required to navigate the time-consuming vaccine signup process and fewer to communities with the highest infection rates.

This illustrates why addressing inequalities in Americans’ health requires addressing inequalities that infect every part of society. Moving forward, our health care systems should take a much more active role in advocating for racial and socioeconomic justice — not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it is one of the most effective ways to improve health outcomes for the country as a whole.

On a global level, the pandemic has illustrated that preparedness and economic resources are no match for lies and misinformation. The United States, Brazil, and Mexico have, by almost any metric, handled the pandemic worse than virtually every other country in the world. The main commonality is that all three were led by presidents who actively downplayed the virus and fought against lifesaving public health measures. Without a global commitment to supporting accurate, scientifically based information, there is no amount of planning and preparation that can outflank the spread of lies.

Parag Pathak, Class of 1922 Professor of Economics
The pandemic has revealed the strengths and weaknesses of America’s health care systems in an extreme way. The development and approval of three vaccines in roughly one year after the start of the pandemic is a phenomenal achievement. At the same time, there are many innovations for which there have been clear fumbles, including the deployment of rapid tests and contact tracing.  

The other aspect the pandemic has made apparent is the extreme inequality in America’s health systems. Disadvantaged communities have borne the brunt of Covid-19 both in terms of health outcomes and also economically. I’m hopeful that the pandemic will spur renewed focus on protecting the most vulnerable members of society.

A pandemic is a textbook situation in economics of externalities, where an individual’s decision has external effects on others. In such situations, there can be major gains to coordination. In the United States, the initial response was poorly coordinated across states. I think the same criticism applies globally. We have not paid enough attention to population health on a global scale.

One lesson I take from the relative success of the response of East Asian countries is that centralized and coordinated health systems are more equipped to manage population health, especially during a pandemic. We’re already seeing the need for international cooperation with vaccine supply and monitoring of new variants. It will be imperative that we continue to invest in developing the global infrastructure to facilitate greater cooperation for the next pandemic.

Prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editor and designer: Emily Hiestand
Consulting editor: Kathryn O'Neill

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