Getting through the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic was hard for everyone, but especially for healthcare staff, who faced serious challenges all around the world and often had to rely on one another to get through. More than ever, they became aware of being part of a global community of professionals who shared a lot of common concerns no matter where they might live.

As things began to settle down, that spirit remained as health managers and policymakers assessed what had just happened and began to reevaluate their priorities in ways that would benefit staff and patients alike. This article looks at some of the positive changes which have emerged from the pandemic and what they mean moving forward.

Enhanced respect for healthcare workers

Public appreciation of the work done by, and the sacrifices made by, healthcare workers during the initial stages of the pandemic has changed the way that they are seen, which has led to increased public demand for them to be treated accordingly. As it has coincided with a reduction in the numbers of qualified professionals disproportionate to need, it has led employers, both private and public, to recognize that they need to offer better deals in order to retain their workers and attract new ones.

Countries such as Luxembourg and Hungary have issued substantial pay increases for nurses and others identified as essential to the smooth running of healthcare facilities. Institutions in Indonesia and the Philippines have offered practical incentives to encourage nurses to remain and work locally rather than going abroad in pursuit of better paying jobs. In African countries, such as Kenya and Tanzania, which have also suffered as a result of healthcare professionals emigrating, an increase in their social status is helping to stem the tide, and the African Union is working with governments to support the development of policies which will encourage them to stay.

Improved hygiene

It’s shocking for those who do practice good hygiene to realize it, but prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, around a third of Americans did not routinely wash their hands, even after using the bathroom. This is a highly variable cultural phenomenon, but right across the world, such behavior had tailed off since the last big global hand-washing campaign 99 years previously. A lot of people just didn’t understand why it mattered. The return of this good habit, along with improved hygiene in general, has helped to reduce the spread of numerous minor diseases, with particular benefits for children and older people. It has also been associated with a fall in the number of miscarriages.

This shift in attitudes has enabled healthcare managers in many places to take a much stricter approach to the conduct of hospital patients and visitors, reducing the number of hospital-acquired infections. It has also increased managers’ awareness of the importance of making hygiene a priority even when funding is tight or limited water is available.

Improved infection risk protocols

This increased focus on hygiene is just one factor in a revised approach to managing infection risks which has led to dramatic changes in many parts of the world. The World Health Assembly voted in 2022 to establish a Global Strategy on Infection Prevention and Control which would enable coordinated work against hospital-acquired infections and antimicrobial resistance, the latter of which was of serious concern to epidemiologists even before the pandemic. Several countries have increased their funding for the Global Antibiotic Research and Development Partnership, which is working to identify alternatives to treatments that are becoming less effective.

At ground level, the use of masks in healthcare settings has continued in many countries and is associated with a decrease in the spread of respiratory infections. Air filtration has been seen as a higher priority in new medical buildings and the use of microwaves to sterilize non-metallic equipment has become standard in many places. Some of these measures have had additional effects on the health of staff and patients. For instance, putting an end to cigarette smoking in hospitals, which was previously the norm across some parts of the Middle East.

Greater vaccine awareness

The sustained campaigns against vaccination which have been waged by conspiracy theorists since the attacks on the combined mumps, measles and rubella vaccine (MMR) in the UK by Andrew Wakefield, who was developing a rival product at the time, rose to a crescendo soon after the development of COVID-19 vaccines. The good news is that across most of the world, vaccine awareness has actually risen as a result of the pandemic. This is due in part to campaigns for access to it that were waged in countries in the global south that could not afford to buy sufficient quantities of it at the initial asking price. Some progress has now been made in negotiating discounts, and healthcare workers have been a priority almost everywhere. This represents a new appreciation of the risks they face and the value of reducing hospital transmission.

Meanwhile, new approaches to vaccine distribution are helping to increase population level immunity in many countries. Outreach policies developed during attempts to eradicate polio have been modified to help with COVID-19 vaccination and with protecting people from other regionally significant risks.

The European Union has sponsored a project which delivers vaccines by motorbike to remote communities in Chad, Burundi, Somalia and other under-served African countries, helping to ensure access to basic preventative medicine even for some of the world’s poorest people. There is a growing worldwide agreement that vaccination for the most dangerous diseases should be free at the point of use.

More knowledge sharing

The experience of the COVID-19 pandemic did away once and for all with the notion that it’s possible to maintain good health in one country when other countries have inadequate health provisions. A dangerous virus that becomes endemic in one country will always spread further if environmental conditions permit it to do so. Attempting to keep infection rates secret for the sake of national pride can seriously hamper internal efforts at controlling spread, as Russia found out.

While there are cases in which countries appear to have abandoned testing for political reasons, giving their citizens the false impression of rapid reductions in spread, the general trend has been towards increased transparency. A political reward for this presented itself early on when national governments were able to celebrate a dramatic reduction in flu infection rates apparently caused by measures taken to prevent COVID-19.

Some virologists think that this had a significant delaying effect on the development of dangerous new flu strains, a significant gain as researchers race to develop promising vaccine candidates which can prevent flu regardless of its seasonal variations. Individual hospitals, meanwhile, have increasingly encouraged staff to talk to their counterparts in other countries in order to enable the rapid exchange of best practices to improve flexibility in the system.

More cross-disciplinary working

COVID-19 is a virus that affects the whole system. Tackling it effectively, especially in the 10% of cases where symptoms linger, has required specialists from many different areas to work together. This means that some healthcare systems have had to be rearranged at the very top level to reverse the compartmentalization of services and forge stronger connections. It’s much better for ailing patients if they can access all the different kinds of treatment they need in a single location.

This has given a particular boost to nurses, who were always better trained in interdisciplinary work than most physicians and who have accordingly seen an increase in their responsibilities since COVID-19 emerged. They are increasingly seen as an important vector of knowledge within hospitals rather than simply as a support service. The nursing profession’s longstanding focus on the continued acquisition of knowledge throughout the career journey has made it particularly adept at taking advantage of new opportunities, with consequent improvements in patient care.

Increased use of telemedicine

While the centralization of healthcare provision means that people living in rural areas may have to travel a long way to access treatment, it has been accompanied by a recognition that many conditions don’t need to be treated in hospitals at all, or even in doctors’ offices. With two-thirds of the global population now online and many more able to arrange short-term internet access by borrowing a friend’s phone or visiting a cybercafé, telemedicine has become a much more practical option, and healthcare managers have been quick to take advantage of this.

Reducing the number of people visiting medical venues immediately reduces infection risks. This means that there’s much less pressure on waiting rooms and patients can often avoid having to take time off work. Patients with chronic illnesses, for whom any amount of travel can be exhausting, can access treatment far more easily, and healthcare staff can often move from one patient to the next with fewer delays. Overheads are lower, which is a big deal in poor countries where clinics often struggle to access the funding they need for basic service provision. In addition to all this, some institutions have managed to retain staff who have suffered long-term health problems due to COVID-19 by moving them into online roles, thereby enabling them to work from home.

Improved education

Just as the internet has improved access to healthcare, it has made it easier to get a good education in the sector. The pandemic experience provided the final boost needed to ensure the already growing online education sector was taken seriously, and it has led to improved cooperation between healthcare institutions and online learning providers.

This means that enrolling in an online nursing program through a reputable institution such as Walsh University provides plenty of options as to where to complete the clinical hours which you need to graduate, and lots of opportunities to draw on the support of local professionals in order to enhance your education. No matter which healthcare program you choose at Walsh University, you’ll not only learn the skills essential to your qualification, but you will also have the opportunity to engage in lively discussions about current health care issues with your fellow students, preparing you to contribute your ideas to policy making once you enter the workplace. You’ll be studying in an environment that recognizes that healthcare is a rapidly evolving field in which an understanding of policy development is essential to staff and patient welfare.

Preparation for the next one

Anyone with any training in epidemiology knows that it is unlikely that COVID-19 will be the last pandemic of our lifetimes. Even before this pandemic, many countries had plans in place for dealing with one, and those are now rapidly being revised. The learning experience that this provided means that future pandemics should be able to be handled much more effectively, keeping people as safe as possible while minimizing disruption. Healthcare workers at every level have been invited to provide feedback to national inquiries which are enabling mistakes to be identified and better planning to be put in place.

Central to this are efforts focused on protecting healthcare workers themselves. This starts with maintaining adequate supplies of PPE and includes factors such as providing counseling support in order to support staff mental health at difficult times, something which is also making managers more aware of the need for proper care of this sort even under normal conditions. Managers who failed to anticipate where weak points would emerge in the system during those difficult early months are, in general, now much more prepared to listen to staff members who know how things work on the ground.

All these changes mean that healthcare has become a much more engaging and exciting field in which to work — one in which a creative approach to problem-solving is valued at every level. With lots of opportunities, and with pay and conditions improving significantly in some countries, there has never been a better time to pursue a career in this sector.