American Health Was Declining Before COVID-19. Now It’s Worse
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, health experts have seen an alarming decline in overall health for Americans — and the U.S. healthcare system is partially to blame. Tom Werner/Getty Images
Medical experts say general health is declining in America.
This has partially been due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated a number of health concerns in addition to the dangers of the coronavirus.
In the wake of the pandemic, experts have seen a decline in patient interest in preventive care.
Inequities in access to healthcare have also widened in recent years, worsening health risks for many.
Experts say the American healthcare system needs to change in order to improve overall health throughout the country.
The health of the average American is on the decline.
In addition to COVID-19 causing more than a million deaths in the U.S., the pandemic has also negatively impacted American health in myriad ways, including increasing rates of obesity, fewer preventive healthcare appointments, and extreme economic insecurity that has further widened inequities in who can afford and access healthcare and health insurance.
Medical experts say all this and more has resulted in a less healthy America overall, and the current state of the U.S. healthcare industry is exacerbating the problem.
In fact, a recent survey from Actium Health painted a pretty broad picture of American health today.
By way of an online survey conducted back in February, the company collected responses from 1,230 adults in the United States, revealing a population that isn’t very proactive about seeking out healthcare and who describe a system they called “painful.”
Among the responses, while 92% of respondents said they feel preventive healthcare measures like routine screenings are “important to their overall health and wellness,” 35% say they are “reactive” about their health. This means they just make a doctor’s appointment when they feel a health issue is coming up, according to a press release for the study.
Those who said they don’t follow recommendations to seek preventive care cited reasons like “I don’t go to the doctor unless I have a problem,” “it’s too costly,” “making appointments is too much of a hassle,” and “I simply forget to make them.”
When it comes to who is most responsible for making sure they engage with making and showing up to preventive health appointments, 30% said it is their doctor’s responsibility, while one out of 10 named their partner or spouse.
Ultimately, this stress around the healthcare system and shifts in behaviors since COVID-19 means many feel less assured of their own health. The survey revealed 50% of respondents said they felt “less healthy” today in 2022 than they did in 2019, during that pre-COVID-19 year.
When asked what was most surprising about the survey’s findings, Michael Linnert, founder and CEO of Actium Health, said there “unfortunately were not any major or big surprises.”
“The perspectives and validation from the healthcare consumers in this survey further indicate and hammers home the opportunity (and need) for health systems to not only be proactive in their communications but that the healthcare consumer expects each outreach to be highly relevant to them,” Linnert wrote in an email to Healthline. “It’s an opportunity for healthcare marketers to use the data they have to tailor their outreach efforts to each patient.”
Linnert explained that when healthcare consumers “are conditioned to receive highly tailored and relevant” communications from other aspects of their daily lives, “it’s alarming” that the new survey shows just 46% say that “outreach from their doctor is always relevant.”
“The challenge exists not when the patient is sitting in front of their doctor, but rather helping all the patients who are healthy and are not in front of the doctor or aren’t in the middle of an episode of care, which is the vast majority of patients,” Linnert wrote.
Improvements can be made by reaching patients where they are
Dr. Daniel Sullivan, who specializes in internal medicine and geriatrics at Cleveland Clinic, told Healthline that, from his vantage point, many patients have not returned to the pre-pandemic levels of engaging with their healthcare providers for preventive screenings like colonoscopies, mammographies, and laboratory testings, among other appointments.
“Not everyone has rescheduled and caught back up,” he said. “Early on in the pandemic, our ability to provide routine screenings was greatly diminished because we were extremely busy early on in the pandemic in meeting the emergent needs of COVID-19.”
That’s not the case now and Sullivan said it’s concerning that people haven’t been proactively seeking the care they need. However, he understands why.
At the height of the pandemic, he said many found it cumbersome that they had to go through additional steps before seeing their providers. You had to be screened for COVID-19 before a colonoscopy, for example. Now that some of those restrictions have loosened, he said things are “better than they were” but the healthcare system is still in “catch-up mode.”
“Getting people who were scheduled, rescheduled, is sometimes a challenge,” added Sullivan, who was not affiliated with the Actium Health research. “People’s work responsibilities have changed, their family responsibilities have changed, sometimes children early on were home, so sometimes leaving to get a mammogram was difficult.”
Flaws in the system
One gruesome takeaway Hill-Briggs said many people took away from the pandemic was that “I survived this at home on my own” and now there is a sense that they don’t have to take the trouble of navigating that “traumatizing system.”
While those with the worst cases flooded hospital intensive care units, many Americans sheltered in place, quarantined, and navigated the stress of managing the new virus all on their own.
This gave something of a false impression that regular provider visits were no longer needed, especially if it meant you could now avoid the confusing system of scheduling appointments and figuring out which doctor is the right fit for your needs.
Hill-Briggs said discussions about reforms to the system have long been in the ether. Over the past decade or so, a lot of the talking points revolved around “making healthcare patient-centered.” Of course, it didn’t really happen.
She said part of the problem is that our country isn’t set up to effectively be oriented around a prevention-focused model, despite the fact it is a nation riddled with chronic illness — something that will only get worse over time as we further quantify the ravages of COVID-19.
Hill-Briggs explained that the system was set up to be an “acute care system,” so that if someone breaks an arm or a leg, they get treatment, then go home.
What you can do to improve your health right now
What can you do if you want to reengage with preventive healthcare, but have taken a break since the onset of the pandemic?
Hill-Briggs said the easiest thing is to contact your primary healthcare professional.
If you don’t have one, find one. Ask for referrals from friends or family, research providers who are covered by your insurance and who might be a good fit, for instance.
She said a primary care provider can help you navigate the complicated system. If you are having a problem but don’t know what specialist to seek first, go to your primary care provider and they can help you narrow it down from there.
Sullivan wanted to stress to the hospital-averse that we are not where we were in 2020. Hospitals are not overrun with COVID-19 cases and effective safety measures such as masks and vaccinated medical staff, mean you will be entering a facility that will possibly be one of the most coronavirus-safe places you could be.