Defining the New Normal

Dr. Eberhard L. Renner
Eberhard Renner, MD
Professor & Head – Department of Internal Medicine

The non-pharmaceutical interventions put in place to slow down the spread of COVID-19 seem effective. For a while now, newly reported COVID-19 cases in Manitoba remain each day in the low single digits. For once, we are lucky to live in sparsely populated fly-over country. It helped too that our spring break was late with quarantine already in place when people returned.

Because of its success in “flattening the curve”, Manitoba made recently first steps to cautiously relax some of the restrictions put in place two months ago. For some these come too fast and go too far, for others it remains too little too late. The next weeks will tell. That said, traffic has noticeably increased, more people floc to the parks, and walking the dog yesterday evening, I could not oversee a bonfire in a yard with loud music and a dozen of people dancing around the fire pit. Along the same line, I am increasingly asked when the health care system would go “back to normal” and when we would start again doing “business as usual”.

During the past two months, how we practice medicine has changed. Hospital access is controlled. “No Visitor” policies have been put in place. Health care workers are screened when they come to work. COVID-free, -suspect, and -positive inpatient spaces and pathways have been implemented in our institutions. Our clinics have largely converted to “seeing” patients virtually using some means of remote communication.  As antiquated landline phone technology may be, we all have embraced calling our patients. And they love it! They no longer have to drive to clinic. They no longer have to pay parking fees. They no longer have to wait, sometimes for hours, just to listen for five minutes to their doctors explaining lab results. 

Of course, there are patients that still require in person assessment and/or treatment. While we always continued to see the urgent/emergent ones, many of the more elective visits were postponed.  They cannot be postponed forever. We have to balance the risk of spreading COVID-19 with that of not receiving timely care for non-COVID related health issues. Currently, that risk seems higher for the latter in Manitoba. There is a need to opening our clinics cautiously some more again for in person patient assessments. This is pending and will be implemented step-wise and cautiously, analogous to the relaxation of the aforementioned non-pharmaceutical interventions in the province.

However, if “normal” means life before COVID-19, and “doing business as usual” means running clinics how we ran them prior to COVID-19, going “back to normal” and “doing business as usual” won’t happen for the foreseeable future. COVID-19 will be with us for quite a while, even with a vaccine – should it be possible at all to develop one that results in durable, protective immunity. Over the next little while, we have to go forward and define the new normal. Physical distancing measures will have to remain in place. They will likely wax and wane as per Public Health’s advice depending on COVID-19 case numbers. Physical distancing measures will have to continue while providing in- and outpatient services. Physical distancing will continue to limit the number of patients we can see per unit of time in our clinic spaces. To balance this without compromising patient care, we will have to build further on the virtual models we were forced to implement by COVID-19. We will have to improve on our remote technologies for delivering care in all situations that do not critically require in person patient assessment. With this, access to care will improve for our patients, in clinic waiting times should disappear, travel costs will decrease, and, last but not least, patient satisfaction should rise.  Health care is a service industry.  I think this is a time when we can make fundamental changes and really invest in service to our patients – after all, on my lanyard is printed “Patients First.”