Posted: 02 Apr. 2020 12 min. read

Could the response to COVID-19 change how the world responds to future outbreaks?

by Neal Batra, principal, David Betts, principal, Deloitte Consulting LLP and Sarah Thomas, managing director of the Center for Health Solutions, Deloitte Services LP

We are in the midst of responding to the novel coronavirus, and it is too early to discuss lessons learned. We are all waiting for some good news—effective therapies for the most at-risk patients, a decline in new cases, lower mortality rates, and any signs that we will be back to normal again. We are worried for our collective health on many levels—our friends, families, colleagues and clients, and our businesses.

When we look back on this outbreak 20 years from now, we might recall it as being a tipping point for how the US and other countries respond to potential health emergencies. It also could accelerate the adoption of transformative technology. The existing health care model is often reactive. Twenty years from now, we expect to see a more agile, data driven, and proactive care system where the consumer, rather than the health system, is at the center.

As we grapple with this world-wide health emergency, it might be difficult to imagine a health system driven by empowered and engaged consumers, radically interoperable data, and real-time scientific discovery. Here are five ways we expect potential health threats may be handled differently in 2040. 

1. Early detection: A key challenge in the US and elsewhere has been the ability to quickly identify and test people who might have been exposed to the virus. China quickly deployed an app and other sensors that monitor people’s temperatures. In the future, we imagine a world where always-on connected devices—such as thermometers or micro-sensors in our bathrooms (maybe in our clothes)—are able to detect an elevated temperature before a person feels ill. Today, we might not realize an outbreak is developing until hundreds of cases have surfaced. By then, it has likely spread far beyond the local community. Early detection could reduce the number of potential infections, which means fewer people spreading a virus. People who are infected might be contacted by a care team that explains how to manage the condition. Care instructions might be regularly updated and delivered through a virtual assistant that helps with everything from monitoring the patient’s condition to having groceries delivered.

2. Home-based testing: If multiple people in a community have similar symptoms, artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled systems might be used to create a digital footprint of an emerging outbreak and alert local health officials. That could trigger drone-delivered testing kits to people—perhaps even before they develop symptoms. This type of data capture could create a real-time, street-by-street perspective of the outbreak. Rather than waiting weeks to identify an outbreak, it might be identified in days or hours. Consumers already have the ability to test themselves for a wide range of potential health problems, from Strep throat to urinary tract infections. Twenty years from now, home-based tests for a new virus might be developed quickly and distributed to people or communities at risk. For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently announced that it would soon be able to offer home-testing kits for COVID-19.1 Results can be shared with the consumer and health officials two days after the test is received. This could make it easier for local officials to determine others who might need to be tested or quarantined.

3. Virtual health/telehealth: There are concerns that our existing health infrastructure could become stressed if too many people are admitted to hospitals at once. However, in the future of health that we envision, we expect to need fewer hospital beds…not more. Why? There is a long-held belief that brick-and-mortar facilities are essential for responding to health emergencies. We argue that if we are able to identify an outbreak in its earliest stages, we might be able to avoid future pandemics. We expect increased use of virtual health during the current health emergency will accelerate adoption for other health needs. Virtual health could also make it possible for people to receive preventive care or early treatment at home, which could reduce inpatient visits. Although the technology to conduct virtual doctor visits has existed for decades, some regulatory and financial barriers have hindered adoption. Could COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, be a tipping point for widespread adoption of virtual care? The US Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) recently announced that it had temporarily expanded access to Medicare telehealth services.2

4. Interoperability: Although we usually think of this issue in terms of health systems, physicians, and health plans sharing information with each other—an issue being taken on in final rules from the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—we also have conceived of interoperability as data coming from devices from public health sources and people’s homes. In our vision of the future of health, public health agencies and others could leverage this radically interoperable data to identify and respond to health emergencies in near-real time. Improved data collection could also help health organizations more effectively screen, model, and forecast potential health threats. Diseases don’t respect geographic boundaries, and interoperability could lead to more global cooperation and sharing of data among governments, researchers, and scientists.

5. Rapidly developed vaccines and treatments: During the TedMed2020 conference in early March, a former Army colonel who studies infectious disease and rapid vaccine development, suggested that the combination of advanced technology, global cooperation, and political resolve could take pandemics off the table in the future. He told attendees that he is working with the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus. He suggested the experience we glean from this current outbreak—along with advanced technology and global cooperation—could lead to the “greatest pandemic defense the world has ever seen.” Vaccine development used to take 10 to 15 years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Today’s technology has taken us from discovery to clinical trials in a matter of months.

Along with changes to the health system, we are also likely to see significant changes in the way people work. Government agencies and many employers are requiring all non-essential employees to work from home, which could help reduce the spread of the virus. Many schools are conducting remote learning, and many in-person conferences have been canceled or retooled as virtual meetings. While some employers lack the infrastructure to allow some staff to work remotely, the latest health event could accelerate change. Not only will organizations need the infrastructure to support work from home, they should figure out how to keep people engaged, especially in a time of worry like this one.

This future of health is already beginning to play out in the US and in other countries. Virtual visits are being used to triage and support patients at home. This can help ensure scarce inpatient and intensive care beds, staff, supplies and other resources are available for those who need them most. Drive-through testing sites that emerged in South Korea early are now being used in the US and other countries. Additionally, in our increasingly connected digital world, the scientific community—supported by academia, philanthropy, industry, and government—has been sharing information and insights to develop public health strategies, treatments, and a vaccine.

Evidence suggests that our vision for the future is coming into focus. Governments, health care organizations, life sciences companies, and technology firms should consider this future and find a path to get there by investing in scientific discovery, new technologies, and protocols that push past existing models. Early detection and testing, interoperability, virtual health, home-based testing, and the ability to rapidly develop vaccines and treatments can change the way the world responds to health threats in the future of health. Engaged consumers can be partners in our collective well-being by their own actions and behaviors.

We applaud our life sciences and health care clients for your many roles in working through this pandemic, the public health agencies, and hospitals on the front lines, the life sciences companies racing to develop medicines, and the state and federal government agencies and health insurance companies working to support members from a financial perspective.

1. Gates-funded program will soon offer home-testing kits for new coronavirus, The Seattle Times, March 8, 2018

2. Medicare telemedicine health care provider fact sheet, CMS, March 17, 2020

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Neal Batra

Neal Batra

Principal | Deloitte Consulting LLP

Neal Batra is a principal in Deloitte’s Life Sciences and Health Care practice focused on business model and commercial operating model innovation, redesign, and transformation. He heads Deloitte’s Life Sciences Strategy & Analytics practice, leading the way on next-gen enterprise/functional evolution by connecting strategic choice with analytics and technology. Batra has more than 15 years of experience advising health care organizations across the ecosystem on critical strategic challenges, including leading businesses in biotech, medtech, health insurance,  and retail health care. Batra is the coauthor of Deloitte’s provocative Future of health point-of-view, speculating on the health care ecosystem in 2040 and the business models and capabilities that will matter most. Batra lives in the Tribeca neighborhood in New York City. He holds an MBA from London Business School and a BBA from the College of William and Mary.

David Betts

David Betts

Principal | Deloitte Consulting LLP

David is a principal in Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Life Sciences and Health Care practice. He leads Deloitte’s Customer Transformation initiatives for the healthcare provider sector, and his work has focused on enhancing core operations in the revenue cycle, driving performance improvement through operating model transformation and growing the business through mergers & acquisitions all with an eye towards creating a more patient-centric, consumer-oriented delivery system.