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To Prevent a Post-Pandemic Surge in Chronic Disease, We Need Big Data Analytics – And Unprecedented Cooperation

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For the past 18 months, Americans have coped with different stages of pandemic lockdown and COVID-induced anxiety; with this, came significant changes in eating habits, alcohol use, and physical activity. These behavioral trends point to a serious public health issue looming behind the veil of COVID-19: at precisely the moment when Americans began engaging in more unhealthy behaviors, they stopped going to the doctor. And many still haven’t been back.

The massive-scale behavioral changes that accompanied the pandemic have created a perfect host environment for chronic disease. Even before COVID-19 was on the radar, the U.S. had the highest disease burden among other comparable nations, driven largely by the growing prevalence of chronic diseases. 

The top risk factors for chronic disease, of course, read like a day in the life of the average American in pandemic lockdown: alcohol and tobacco sales soared in 2020 and, according to a survey from the American Psychological Association, 61% of adults experienced undesired weight changes. Different studies have put the average weight gain at somewhere between 7.8 and 29 pounds. A recent review in the Journal of Sleep Medicine found that about 40% of the U.S. population reported sleep problems during the pandemic.

Now, add on top of that dangerous mix a nationwide pattern of delayed and deferred routine care and preventive screenings. Our research at Komodo Health showed significant declines in preventive care over the past year, including a 96% decline in mammograms, an 91% decline in colonoscopies, a 72% decline in cervical cancer screening (Pap test), a 65% decline in lipid panel testing, and a 61% decline in A1c tests. While some of these volumes started to pick up in late 2020 and early 2021, none has made up for the ground lost during the height of the pandemic.

That’s a deadly combination of factors that should send shivers down the spines of public and private health officials. Without significant intervention, the long-term impact of this trend will be a surge in premature death and stratospheric growth in healthcare costs, on top of those already caused by COVID-19. We need to get out in front of this problem now.

The only way to do that effectively and comprehensively is to get serious about tracking real-world patient journeys and zeroing in on gaps in care that have emerged since 2020. Public health officials, health plans, providers, and Life Sciences companies all have important stakes in getting this right. It needs to be bigger than just physicians’ groups scanning their electronic medical records (EMRs) and calling patients who haven’t had their annual well visit. 

The healthcare community needs to take a coordinated approach to identifying patterns of behavior consistent with higher health risk, spotting gaps where the standard of care is not currently being met, and designing interventions that connect with different demographic, racial, and ethnic groups to ensure people are not falling through the cracks. 

The data and high-powered analytics to spot these trends and target these populations exist today. What does not exist yet is the concerted effort among healthcare stakeholders to get serious about the challenge we’re facing and the team effort it will take to address it. Aggressive public awareness campaigns, targeted patient and physician outreach, and value-driven payment strategies are all going to play a critical role in driving the large-scale behavior change needed to avoid a serious post-COVID aftershock.  

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