As COVID-19 infection rates and death tolls climb in the U.S., it’s hard to fault anyone for feeling worried, confused, and fed up. Our friends and family are debating whether to use masks and other preventive measures. Fear and pessimism are pervasive. And it’s hard not to notice the lack of national leadership in the U.S., especially when compared to other countries’ successful containment of the coronavirus. This is a global pandemic, affecting the world the same way everywhere. The difference around the world is that leaders are helping people by focusing on health, wellness, and hygiene. To survive and thrive, we shouldn’t allow the spotlight to skew political, but instead, it should focus on human, empathetic, and productive ways to beat this virus.

Confusion, arrogance, and ignorance only heighten and extend the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps more than anyone, those in healthcare are devastated to watch their communities unnecessarily succumb to the virus and the emotional duress resulting from the angst and hysteria.

Amidst everything, there’s also a silver lining to COVID-19, and these are the conversations we need to start having. By taking a breath and looking closely, healthcare professionals can spot ways to see the good in the chaos, to add new value to their practices and the lives of their patients. Today, clinicians are presented with unique opportunities to improve the well-being of patients who stubbornly or unknowingly place themselves and their loved ones at risk or miss chances to proactively take care. Some patients, who take the pandemic seriously, are making the most of shelter in place behaviors and are developing habits that could cement big health gains for years to come.

In what’s largely touted as one of our darkestest hours in modern history, healthcare leaders and patients can actually reimagine medicine and become the light for a brighter future.

The Silent Kilter: How COVID-19 Changes Are Improving Lives

What if we allow ourselves to see the good in this pandemic?

For starters, Americans are paying more attention to their health. A survey in March found that 87% wanted to get tested for COVID-19. Six in 10 U.S. adults said in another survey that they are placing more emphasis on their health than they did a decade ago. Another study found that the vast majority felt uncomfortable attending parties or restaurants this past spring, signaling a shift in values where health and safety have overtaken convenience.

So, what did we do when society went into hibernation? Here are some of the ways people began developing good habits, fueling hope for the future.

1. Get back to nature. When lockdowns hit and the bars closed, people are returning to nature to pass the time, causing visitor limits and even park closures in some states. Spending time in nature benefits our mental health and often involves working up a sweat.

2. Make time for exercise. There are few steps we can take to fortify the body like exercise. While many gyms closed in the U.S., interest in exercise surged after restrictions went in place, suggesting we might’ve found ways to keep busy. A recent survey conducted by Sport England, for example, found that 62% of adults in the U.K. considered that being active is more important now than pre-COVID-19.

3. Practice good hygiene (take care of yourself). How many people washed their hands for a full 30 seconds prior to the coronavirus? Probably not as many who should have. Now however, we have a society in which soap is like gold, hand sanitizer and disinfectants command a premium. As you well know, washing hands is a better way to stay healthy while slowing the spread of the virus. And, those people who choose to wear face masks are the unsung heroes of this pandemic. In one study, researchers predicted that 80% of the population wearing masks would do more to reduce the spread of COVID-19 over a strict lockdown.

4. Make health-conscious choices. When restaurants shuttered, people started cooking for themselves en masse, a change that’s slated to outlast the pandemic. What’s more, we began thinking about other aspects of their health. Contrary to what you see on social media, for instance, Americans started drinking less during COVID-19. Stress baking too during the pandemic literally rose. The NPD Group reported that sales of hand mixers, stand mixers, waffle makers, and bakeware were hot during lockdown.

5. Savor family time. By now, you might be tired of entertaining the kids all day or helping with remote learning. But, while hunkered down together, American parents got the chance to bond with and teach their children in ways likely to not be possible en masse in the future. All of that quality time might lay the foundation for healthy habits, stronger relationships, and mental and physical wellbeing, long into their lives.

6. Promote natural beauty. Our mental health directly related to our self-image. COVID-19 gave many of us, including Hollywood stars, the courage to be ourselves, fake hair coloring and makeup aside to live life online, and on Zoom, with no filter (except for the funny and exotic backgrounds and augmented filters. Think about how much less you stress over your appearance in online meetings. Feels good, right?

7. Find some fun hobbies. Golf, kayaking, bicycling—these are the things we typically want to do but don’t often get around to. Good luck finding kayaks and bikes in your local shop these days. “Golf” has emerged as a top Google search term, even ahead of COVID-19 itself. In fact, COVID-19 has pushed Americans to explore new hobbies, and we’re healthier for it. Bikes, for instance, were riding out of shops faster than they could ride in. Brooklyn Bicycle Company president Ryan Zagata told the New York Times that sales had soared by more than 600% this year compared with the same period in 2019. Even Peloton reported that its connected, stationary gear realized a 66% increase in sales as coronavirus keeps consumers working out at home.

8. Use digital wisely, with purpose and self-care. Shelter in place thrust us into a world of working from home, remote learning, with Zoom becoming a platform for pretty much every form of social engagement. If you watched “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix, then you might have been shocked to learn that our favorite social networks and media sites (Netflix too, not so ironically) are intentionally competing for our attention and constantly experimenting with ways to keep our faces glued to our phones. Research is showing that the more time we spend using digital to “feel better” about ourselves or to escape the chaos of the Pandemic (and politics), the more we stoke negative effects such as chronic stress, anxiety, lower self-esteem and self-confidence, trauma, and depression. Newport Academy suggests unplugging regularly to reawaken real-life environments, reconnect with meaningful friendships, and plug-in to nature and offline activities. Also, read Lifescale to use digital to unlock positive, new heights of happiness, productivity, and creativity.

“There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.” —Edward Tufte, professor emeritus of political science and computer science at Yale University

9. Keep it simple. In many ways, even through the mayhem, life eased under lockdown. Suddenly, we didn’t need to get to that big meeting, business travel dramatically slowed, weekends were suddenly free instead of the usual running about, going to brunches and jumping from birthday party to other parities. We had time to garden, catch our breath, and savor the moment. Seed companies everywhere reported dramatic increases in sales with many running out of stock. Kitchen Garden Seeds said sales were up 40% in 2020. Renee’s Garden in Felton, CA shared that their normal spring peak was around 350 orders daily, but had spiked to 2,000.

A Wake-up Call for Healthcare Leaders

Will these behavior changes stick? We’re human, of course, and we tend to forget the bad. When that happens, we risk sliding back into our old ways. This is where healthcare providers can make a positive impact.

Researchers say it takes 66 days to solidify a new habit. Some patients are already there, but others are far from it. Vigilance and guidance are key. 

I vividly recall one of my previous heart surgery patients who snapped photos of his open heart surgery scars while still in the hospital to remind himself his life needed to change after this hospitalization.  He wanted to remind himself how his sedentary lifestyle and eating habits would indeed lead back to a hospital admission or worse…  The reflection of himself looking at this lowest while post op, immobile and still in the hospital was the jolt he said he would need to remind himself “once back on his feet and normal at home” that this could not continue.  Staying healthy is best maintained when we are indeed actually healthy, but also the time when we most take our health for granted.

Healthcare professionals can help patients protect the powerful progress they’ve made. Drawing on the old adage, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” clinicians can kick-start conversations that are about proactive, better lifestyles that are so much more than health. This dynamic, rooted in the tenets of value-based care, shares responsibility for personal health with the patient and augments healthcare’s value proposition with new and more personal services and care. The shift also stands to humanize clinician-patient relationships and improve well-being for both.

What concrete steps can healthcare professionals take to foster this proactive approach to health and wellness? Here’s what we prescribe.

  • Create new proactive engagement opportunities. Explore technologies that enable patients and physicians to keep in contact, when and where they need it.
  • Double down on virtual visits. Emergency departments saw their volumes drop when COVID-19 forced patients out of the hospital and the government relaxed telehealth reimbursement rules. Patients, it turned out, enjoyed the convenience and results of virtual care. They’ll still want to engage on their terms once the pandemic subsides.
  • Use technology to personalize proactive care. Be the Ritz-Carlton of healthcare. Build relationship management and patient engagement into your practice. Adopt tools that empower you to customize care plans and communications for individual patients. There’s no need to be cold or reactive in the age of data and artificial intelligence.
  • Help patients become accountable every day. No one needs to take patients at their word—including themselves. Analytics, for instance, can alert all stakeholders when a patient is likely to drop off new medications or return to poor habits. Work with your patients to build an environment in which they are set up to succeed, not stumble.

Despite COVID-19’s horrible toll on the U.S. and around the world, the pandemic has provided us a chance to change, to see what a better life looks and feels like. As patients, we can alter our habits to support healthy lifestyles. As healthcare professionals, we can topple traditional views and construct a system that’s smarter, more accessible, and better connected.

Now’s the time. COVID-19, after all, won’t be our final pandemic.

This article is co-authored by Dr. Geeta Nayyar, a nationally recognized leader in healthcare information technology, a physician executive, a frequently sought-after public speaker, and an author with unique perspectives that bridge clinical medicine, business, communications, and digital health. Dr. Nayyar currently serves as executive medical director for Salesforce, connecting North American enterprise health systems to the technologies that empower hospitals, enhance the work of physicians, and improve patient care.