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17 September 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 1:39pm

Creating a positive Covid-19 legacy

The pandemic has injected fresh and welcome urgency into public health policy.

By Hugo Breda

Throughout history, we often see that the most tumultuous periods bring with them the brightest moments of innovation. In healthcare that is certainly true. It was world wars that led to the invention of the orthopaedic splint, the widespread development of antibiotics and even played a part in the formation of the NHS itself.

As we continue to grapple with the “new normal” in a Covid-19 world, amidst the daily updates on positive cases, loss of life and the impact on economies across the globe, it can be hard to focus on positives. There is no denying the devastating ongoing impact of the pandemic, but I would urge the government and healthcare sector to take a step back to focus on the opportunities before us and certain challenges that, if we don’t tackle them now, will continue to place a strain on patients and our NHS for generations to come.

As the government, NHS and industry seek to reform the way healthcare is delivered, particularly when considering the role of the newly created Institute for Health Protection, we need to look at the entire patient journey from prevention through to treatment and follow-up. This must include tackling how services are delivered to vulnerable groups of patients to even out the inequalities in the healthcare system that the pandemic has highlighted, such as
in age, gender, ethnicity and socio-economic deprivation.

For me, one of the key questions is how do we prevent, or more efficiently treat diseases that increase the burden on the NHS, drive costs and put patients’ lives at risk in the first place?

An opportunity to tackle obesity
One of the biggest population health challenges that has been identified as paramount to the pandemic is obesity, and its implications in the severity of coronavirus illness. I was pleased to see the recent government announcement about a range of new measures being introduced as part of its new obesity strategy; however, obesity is not a new challenge in the UK – with almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of adults in England being overweight or living with obesity and obesity-related illnesses, costing the NHS £6bn a year.

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The urgency of tackling obesity has certainly been brought to the fore by evidence of the link to an increased risk from Covid-19. I believe it is now the duty of the government, industry and healthcare practitioners to seize the opportunity this brings and drive meaningful, lasting change. We need to collaborate to identify and implement a “whole-systems approach” to successfully challenge obesity – one that looks at prevention right through to treatment, including surgical intervention.

Being one of the world’s largest healthcare and medical devices companies, we also see the impact obesity puts on other services. Obesity is a gateway condition to 400 other illnesses and co-morbidities and increases the risk of 14 different types of cancer. The strain it puts on patients’ joints means a greater demand on orthopaedic services; the increased risk of having obesity brings with it increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke and cancers – all specialties adversely impacted by Covid-19 that are now grappling with huge waiting-list challenges or influxes of patients with advanced-stage diseases who were too afraid or unable to access treatment sooner.

Reforming and redesigning services
At Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices we are now supporting many of these specialties with service redesign to help them tackle the backlog in the short term, but also make lasting reform to be more efficient and safely treat more patients in the long run. We have developed a range of recovery packages and digital solutions based on listening to the changing needs of NHS Trusts and Sustainable Transformation Partnerships (STPs) so we can co-create value-based services and solutions together. This has enabled us to forge many new partnerships with the NHS – helping it to understand and create efficiencies within its systems with the ultimate aim of improving outcomes for its patients. 

We are also collaborating to maximise best practice aligned to GIRFT (Getting it Right First Time), tailoring bespoke solutions based on a trust’s needs to introduce and streamline everything from product utilisation and digital tools, through to theatre utilisation, patient engagement, and resource management tools that help to unlock capacity, free up resources and help the millions of patients who need treatment.

While the pandemic has undoubtedly put one of the biggest strains on services the NHS has seen, it has shown how, when truly needed, it can be agile and quickly reform, serving multiple archetypes. From our work, it is clear that empowering trusts across the country to do things differently can create lasting, positive change.

I believe this gives the NHS its best ever chance of beating the traditional winter pressures, and managing a second Covid-19 wave of hospital admissions while maintaining other specialty services.

Looking to the future
But I believe these learnings also bring a new opportunity to change the way we treat population health more broadly –  as resources continue to be pumped into the NHS, it would be a huge waste not to capitalise on this now. As we collaborate to reform services, we must also focus resources more broadly on the prevention of disease in the first place through education and pathways, promoting healthy lifestyle choices, and measures that will have a positive impact on prolonging life among the population as a whole.

This devastating pandemic could in fact be a watershed moment in creating the social and political motivation to reform existing services for the long term and build a system that values everyone’s health equally – placing as much emphasis on the prevention of disease, just as much as treating those who are sick.

What an achievement to be able to reflect back on when we remember the early 2020s – yes, it was the era of Covid-19, but it was also the period in time that saw meaningful change in tackling some of our biggest health challenges of the 21st century.

Hugo Breda is managing director at Johnson & Johnson Medical Devices UK and Ireland.