If we needed any more proof about how unhealthy the American population is, and how bad the health care system is at addressing it, COVID-19 provided it. The lives taken by the virus itself made for the country’s deadliest year in history. But also contributing to the unfortunate milestone were increases in deaths from what have become some of the most chronic, yet preventable, diseases. Most notably, the number of people who died of diabetes and heart disease increased by the biggest rate in two decades, up 14% and 3% respectively, according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The death rate for other diseases also jumped: Alzheimer’s up 8%, Parkinson’s up 11% and stroke up 4%.
Some of the additional deaths were likely caused by people fearful of contracting COVID-19 who skipped necessary doctor’s appointments. People with type 2 diabetes and other conditions were more susceptible to severe complications and death from coronavirus. But imagine how many lives would have been saved if people had basic health conditions under control.
The numbers should be a wake-up call for everyone: Americans need to take responsibility for their health, and our health care system must address the flaws within it that COVID exposed. It’s a disgrace and embarrassment that one of the wealthiest countries in the world is filled with so many sick people.
As Dr. James Madara, CEO and executive vice president of the American Medical Association wrote last year: “This pandemic is a watershed moment in American history, one we must seize upon to fix the most glaring problems in our health system.” Among the ideas for change he had were to realign the health system around the need to prevent and treat chronic disease, better train physicians for 21st century challenges, and “root out racism” and “eliminate systemic inequities” that result in poorer health outcomes for Black and brown communities, including during the pandemic. That means improving access to care in communities of color and making health care more affordable where it is out of reach. It means making healthy foods more accessible to more communities and increasing opportunities to stay active to keep people healthy and out of the hospital.
There also needs to be an effort undertaken to build trust in the health care system in communities of color, as well as other populations. It does no good to have sound science to back up a solution for a health problem if people remain too skeptical to believe it. The troublesome road to getting people vaccinated has shown that far too many people don’t see scientists, or government for that matter, as looking out for their best interests, and that is a problem. It is a sad day when people believe conspiracy theorist claims about tracking devices over the advice of doctors. Without trust, the result will only be continued loss of life.
Many of these ideas are not new, but change has been slow to come. The pandemic offers a chance to refocus and reboot and use the crisis that killed so many to change the system once and for all and the part we individually play in it. There’s no doubt that we have to do better. The medical community’s rapid response to COVID proved it has what it takes to successfully confront new and complex problems head on. It must use the same urgency and resolve to tackle the problems of the past that still persist today.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.