The global pandemic is a defining moment for the U.S. healthcare sector, prompting a reckoning for the country’s healthcare infrastructure and leading to sweeping changes in who can receive medical coverage and how they access it.

It has also become a defining issue of the election, with President Donald Trump and former VP Joe Biden offering vastly different visions for the future of the industry. The two presidential nominees differ on almost every major healthcare issue, from rising prescription drug prices to the Affordable Care Act.

Edelman’s Kirsty Graham and Courtney Gray Haupt led a discussion with leading experts across the sector to discuss the implications of the pandemic on the healthcare industry and its future. Here’s what you need to know.

Trust is at an all-time high for the healthcare sector—but it needs to be maintained.

Edelman’s recent research found that trust in institutions broadly—and healthcare in particular—has increased globally. The January 2020 study found that in the U.S., only 68 percent said they trust the healthcare industry. In May 2020, that number jumped to 76 percent.

However, to maintain this public trust, the industry needs to confront and address its deep-seated health, economic and racial inequities. Mayo Clinic’s Piper Nieters Su noted how the pandemic has not only shed light on, but exacerbated, the preexisting disparities in healthcare that impact women and communities of color.

The facts: The differences in infection case rates are striking, with Black, LatinX and indigenous populations dying from Covid-19 at disproportionately high rates.

To help Black and minority communities respond to the virus effectively and efficiently, Dr. Uché Blackstock urged:

  • Increased government testing and contact tracing
  • Services and programming that address why these communities get hit the hardest
  • Greater focus on the biases embedded in digital health technologies and services like telehealth

Quotable: “Health inequities have been exposed by this pandemic that were actually preexisting … like maternal mortality, infant mortality, chronic disease burdens, in Black and Brown communities,” said Dr. Blackstock. This, combined with the Black Lives Matter movement, are leading to “open conversations about equity and racial justice in a very candid way that we’ve never had before.”

What this means for the election

With more than 220,000 deaths caused by Covid-19, it’s unsurprising that healthcare has become a key topic going into the 2020 election, particularly for female voters. “Every woman I’ve talked to has talked about the importance of being able to afford healthcare and her concerns about being able to pay for doctor’s bills or prescriptions,” said The 19th healthcare and policy journalist Shefali Luthra. She also noted that the pandemic has had serious negative impacts on women’s mental health.

Health communication matters

The last few months have reinforced how vital health communication is and how crucial it is for the public to hear from a diverse set of health experts and physicians on the ground. “It’s important for people, especially from communities of color, to see someone like me … on-air talking about these issues [and] acknowledging that they are there,” says Dr. Blackstock. She also mentioned that the National Medical Association has organized a Covid-19 task force that will be vetting FDA recommendations around therapeutics and vaccines.

What you need to do now

It’s never too early to prepare for the next large-scale outbreak. Here are several areas where Congress and industry could work together constructively to improve the affordability and accessibility of care in the future, and reinforce trust in science, treatments and solutions.

Expand diversity in clinical trials: Dr. Jonca Bull, an ophthalmologist, and first permanent director of FDA's Office of Minority Health, cited a meta-analysis done by the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Bioethics in 2011 which revealed that while many minorities believe in the importance of health and scientific research, and are willing to take part, they have never been asked to participate in clinical trials.

Strengthen community partnerships and engagement

  • Outreach and engagement with community nonprofits, groups and agencies, and partnerships with trusted local leaders and healthcare workers are essential to promoting health equity and addressing health inequities, said Dr. Blackstock. Blanket messaging is no longer an option. Tailored and thoughtful approaches are needed to create, promote and implement community-based solutions

Broaden cooperation and collaboration in the public sector: A bright spot in the pandemic has been the unprecedented level of collaboration and engagement between governments, academics and industry on vaccines and treatments for Covid-19. Lori Reilly, COO at PhRMA, said, “Our industry leaders are having weekly conversations with folks at the Food and Drug Administration.” They want to keep this momentum going and transfer these learnings to other disease states.

Trust in science again: Now is the time to elevate the voices of experts and communicate to the public how scientific knowledge is developed. “People respond well to science. There’s a reason that so many Americans trust Dr. Fauci,” said Luthra. “They see him as this really nonpartisan, by the book, speaker of facts. … It’s really important to be upfront, thorough and clear.”

  • Reilly echoed this sentiment: “Science will win at the end of the day.”

We’ll leave you with this, from Graham: “At no time in recent history has the [healthcare] sector been more needed, more valued, more relevant and more resilient.”