Confronted by the rapidly evolving COVID-19 healthcare emergency, patients across the country are appropriately scared and looking for guidance and hope. At such times, the attributes of academic health centers give them a unique role to play in the nation’s response.
Academic health centers are designed to offer cutting-edge, best-in-class care. This is achieved by advancing the health and well-being of all patients through rapid, impactful research. These evidence-based contributions are proving especially critical during this pandemic and, as they were during past healthcare crises, are often the difference between life and death.
Like all hospitals, AHCs are working around the clock to provide care while transforming to increase bed capacity, address supply chain disruptions for ventilators and protective equipment, and to support their overworked staff who run toward illness rather than staying at home. Concurrently, and distinctively, these facilities bring the breadth of a university enterprise to meet the public health need.
At the University of California at Irvine, my colleagues in the schools of health (medicine, nursing, public health and pharmacy) are helping to guide local and state health policy, conducting scores of clinical trials, for example, nationwide tests of medications like remdesivir and convalescent plasma, while our translational investigators have developed tests for infection, serologic assays for immune response, and are marching toward a vaccine.
At the same time, the chemistry and biology departments are applying structural biology and synthetic design to create inhibitors that suppress virus binding and entry into cells, while others are creating viral transport fluids to meet the nationwide shortage. The fluids are essential for testing.
The art and engineering schools and our Applied Innovation center are meeting the urgent need to protect caregivers by designing, producing and delivering 3D-printed face shields to front-line workers across Orange County, while our physicians and corporate partners have designed an inexpensive, quick-to-manufacture “bridge ventilator” for use if ICUs are overwhelmed and standard ventilators are unavailable.
A single academic institution is always amplified by others. In our case, we are empowered first by collaborations across the entirety of the 10-campus University of California system (including five AHCs) where over 330 basic, translational and clinical COVID-19 efforts were already underway by mid-March, as well as by peers across the country.
There are 154 accredited medical schools in the U.S. and nearly 400 major teaching hospitals. We apply knowledge and resources almost immediately to improve care delivery and to innovate, and that makes a difference when it matters most.
COVID-19 will find its place in the history books and loom large in our memories. It will produce fundamental changes in healthcare that are already underway—for example, the ready uptake by patients and caregivers of virtual visits that improve access and ease of service while decreasing costs. It will also offer lessons we can choose to embrace to prevent future crises; these include the provision of basic healthcare for all and addressing inequalities manifesting now as strikingly disproportionate deaths among the underserved.
One lesson that I hope stands out is that we are all in this together. While AHCs are designed to discover, teach and heal, other sites of care may not be funded or organized in that manner. However, we are all driven by the same core principle of improving the health and well-being of our patients and communities, and should feel driven by the COVID-19 pandemic to work together to transform healthcare to meet that moral imperative.
We should fill in gaps in care where they exist, using research as a driving force. The invaluable role of the clinical investigator cannot be overstated, nor can the significance of collaborations to foster innovations that turn discoveries into action.
Concerted efforts to connect across disciplines, geographies and systems to design and share evidence-based best practices will better position all healthcare providers to serve during this crisis and beyond.