Fixing what is broken: What organisations can learn from the pandemic

Wherever you are on the spectrum of total acceptance to going nuts, one thing is sure: Life changed beyond recognition. Whatever it will go back to eventually will create a new status quo. I am positive it will be a good one.

But the sacrifice we embrace or endure right now will mould us into an updated version of humanity. Repeat action is a great shortcut to habit formation and this may well get us used to virtual everything – from board meetings to yoga classes. Digital transformation has been a ‘priority’ for years. But only now are we seeing widespread efforts to make up for the lost time.

Organisations used to decision by a committee are stepping up their game with surprising agility. Meanwhile, our climate gets a break and our healthcare systems are under review – both for good reasons but this move only made possible by a global crisis. But we must also see the bad. A sheer unbelievable portion of people are out of jobs, some without access to critical infrastructure or ability to meet their daily needs.

The mess that we are in

Truth is, the impact of the virus has only just begun. The 150,000 deaths as of now represent roughly 0.2 per cent of people passing in any given year. Most of these approximately 50-55 million deaths link back to chronic diseases. The rough figure globally for deaths due to such illnesses stands at 80 per cent, almost irrespective of social and economic development.

That means most of humanity ultimately loses to it. It is just that epidemics like this one and less capable healthcare systems accelerate the process considerably. What this means is that we all have the same core problem, but different timelines. Wealthier countries with better healthcare provision and correspondingly higher life expectancy simply delay the fatality of chronic conditions.

In reality, even the best healthcare systems globally are somewhat broken. For instance, many medical professionals deal with immense bureaucracy and red tape just to do their jobs. That means the scarce talent we have available is absorbed by mundane admin tasks when it could be helping patients. Beyond that, it is estimated that that in countries like the US, medical error is the third leading cause of death, claiming approximately a quarter of a million lives annually. Adding on to that, modern medicine has excessively cultivated a mindset of curing patients as the primary function of medicine.

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With such a narrow focus, illness is treated at face value and correspondingly we are told that some things simply are not curable. But I have rarely seen a case in which hopelessness is a particularly great cure for anything. It likely makes things worse.

Chronic illness in itself is a term that exemplifies this aversion to looking deeper: We accept that the underlying condition cannot be changed, and simply treat the symptoms. In the case of diabetes, this can cost a healthcare system in excess of US$100,000 in long-term care per patient, which is not exactly amazing considering that 95 per cent of diabetes (type 2) is lifestyle-related. In the case of early detection and behavioural intervention, we could avert much suffering and the spending of a six-figure sum per each individual affected. Diabetics are told their condition is progressive and out of their hands; that there is nothing they can do. Hardly the right message, is it?

As a result, a large percentage of society is made to identify with a disease and its inevitability. The resulting feeling of helplessness is something the healthcare accepts. It is not their burden to bear, but the patients’. In situations like the one right now, where everyone is affected, that means we are all made to feel that way. But worst of all, it inspires inaction. It is the last thing we need right now. We must stop looking the other way when it comes to the influence each of us wields on our own physical, mental and overall health. Improvements to healthcare will take more than just clinical advancements.

What if instead, we went further than improving our ways of coping with the impact of the disease, and focused on preventing it altogether? Chronic diseases appear at all ages and for all types of reasons, but the main influencing factor is lifestyle. We all know this, but healthy living has been a latent ‘priority’ in much the same way as digital transformation. It’s bizarre that in all the buzz around our current situation hardly anyone seems to speak about the importance of a healthy lifestyle in boosting immunity. It is like highlighting the devastating impact of cavities and the importance of brushing your teeth without giving any mention to the effects of sugar.

Our brains are engineered to prefer focusing on the short term and indulging quick fixes, but this is lopsided.

Moderate diet and physical activity are a long term intervention that may well strengthen our defences against sudden epidemics and predictable lifestyle diseases alike. Good hand hygiene and social distancing are also a form of prevention, but one that is squarely focused on the short term. In fact, with all the microorganisms living on and in us, sanitising may also be a short-term idea. What appears to matter more to our health is the kinds of microbes we harbour, not the temporary absence of any.

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Compliance measures focused on keeping people apart should be the tip of the iceberg of measures taken to recover public health in these trying times and ensure a better outcome the next time. This will require healthcare to transition from what we refer to as ‘sick care’ to a focus on heavily investing in preventative care at a much greater scale than currently.

The role of tech companies in bringing change

Much like how the fintech wave emerged from the GFC, we should expect a drastic increase in digital health propositions focusing on preventative care and wellbeing. Fintech was the answer to a dysfunctional culture of distrust, over-bureaucracy and lack of customer focus amidst the financial services sector. Overall it inspired great improvement in all areas of the value chain.

Fintechs showed us that offering customers simple solutions, giving them data and control about their interaction with them and communicating with them on eye-level transformed the way we consume financial services.

We can expect the same for healthcare, where it is easy to detect similar issues. Technology-driven companies, especially those in health and wellness, will have some answers to the problems we are facing globally right now. They will hopefully create a new precedent in which doctors and their patients collaborate, assisted by data and connected by trust in the shared effort that is public health. At the same time, they will automate admin tasks, free up resources and help enhance medical value chains from better diagnosis to improved treatment.

Not to forget, technology is in a prime position to use data-driven approaches in re-shaping our behaviour towards healthier and ultimately more rewarding alternatives. The new trillion-dollar opportunity for tech is no longer to give us perpetual instant gratification, but to help us look after ourselves in the long run and be the best we can be today, tomorrow and thereafter.

There are many takeaways awaiting us right now (pun very intended.) It is time for a wholesome and considered approach to enter the way governments, organisations and people like you and I solve seemingly unsurmountable challenges.

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Our globalised world in the 2020s is too complex to legitimate myopic problem-solving approaches. Issues such as COVID-19 are deeply interconnected with the overall health of our system, exposing the need to understand the bigger picture and overall implications as an interconnected maze. Having the courage to unbox big problems (and our thinking to address them) will give us a fighting chance at transforming our planet into a healthier home for humanity.

However tempting it may be to jump at short-term fixes, stopping there would be dangerous. If we are to return to normal anytime soon and prevent such in time to come, it is in our hands to be the change we ought to see, globally.

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