Living with the pandemic: Eight lessons for our health

by Luisa Schumann at July 01, 2020

Patientin vor dem Caspar Bildschirm

The coronavirus has turned the world upside down. But it also taught us a few things about our health.

If we cast our minds back to just one year ago, telemedicine was little more than a pipe dream for most people in Germany. Seeing a doctor via video call? Unthinkable! In clinics across Germany, where medical records are often still stored in the basement and appointments are entered on paper calendars, the stale air of the past still blew along the corridors. Germany was about to miss the digital boat.

But sometimes, especially when you are reluctant to jump, all it takes is a little push. In this case, the push appeared in Germany in February in the form of a virus. All of a sudden, the provision of medical care was in free fall – and somehow the healthcare system had to save itself. Telemedicine, which for many people previously sounded like spaceships and robots, was suddenly not only cutting-edge, it was feasible. 

We’ve all learned a thing or two about our health over the past few months:

1.  Your home can be an office, a gym, and a doctor’s practice  Just make sure you close the door once you’re done.

All of a sudden, the world became much, much smaller. It was no longer possible to hop on a plane and visit business partners in distant countries or take a city break with the people of your choice, miles away from home. The majority of our daily activities were suddenly confined to home. And many people were pleasantly surprised to find that they could make it work. Sports at home, working from home, doctor’s appointments by phone – all this was suddenly doable. Indeed, lots of smart people had already come up with software solutions before the crisis, which certainly helped. Just a few years ago, none of this would have been possible, but now there are so many things we can do via a convenient app or online.

Of course, being at home all day creates previously unimagined opportunities – saving time that we would otherwise have spent on a commute, we could spend the entire working day in sweatpants, and companies saved money because they no longer needed to rent so many rooms or equip so many workstations. Yet psychologists also raise awareness around the dangers associated with working from home. It is important to set clear boundaries between leisure time and work, and by “work” they not only mean your actual job but also medical or therapeutic appointments, as well as home training. All of these are important, but no one can fully concentrate at their desk when the exercise bike is just a few meters away and you just finished your therapy session via video call at that very same desk. So what should you do? “It is important to stick to a clear schedule. The problem with working from home is often the lack of breaks and the fluid transitions between work and leisure. So make sure to set up time to rest.” recommends Henrik Grobe, psychological psychotherapist at Caspar. “In addition, spatial separation of different activities is important. You should work at your desk, then move to the kitchen or sofa for a therapy session or a doctor’s appointment. Make a ritual of shutting down your work computer at the end of the day. In general, it is important to draw a clear line between things you have to do and things you choose to do. Relaxation starts in the mind – so if you tell yourself, ‘Now is my free time’ or ‘Now is when the weekend begins’ you’ve already taken the most important step.”

2. The internet is our friend, not our foe.

Pre-corona, headlines about software solutions and the internet were rarely positive. The media tended to focus on data breaches, hackers, cyberbullying, or viruses. 

But thanks to the many coronavirus and contact tracing apps, we have all seen how much the internet can also help. It can be used to trace chains of infection, enable communication between countries, help track the spread of the virus, and show the availability of intensive care beds. And finally, the internet has enabled many of us to continue working: from home, from the comfort of our home computers.

3. Not everything can be done digitally, but a lot more than we thought. 

So, what have you done online for the first time over the past few months? Shopping or a sports class? Or maybe you hosted a family dinner via Zoom or Skype, attended a doctor’s appointment, or attended a trade show? 

The world has discovered just how many things can be done online. It may take some getting used to, but with the right app or website, we can all save time and money. And it’s environmentally friendly too. But some things do require face-to-face contact: If you are experiencing acute chest pain, for example, you should still call the emergency doctor, and stroke symptoms must also be taken seriously and examined by a doctor.

According to the Charité hospital in Berlin, the number of patients presenting with suspected heart attacks or strokes in April 2020 was down by around 40 percent. This could be fatal, especially as in such cases, every second does count.

The internet can do far more than we ever imagined. But it can’t do everything.

4. Sometimes, you need to take your health into your own hands. Which is also a good thing.

While doctors’ offices only admitted emergencies, physical therapy practices were only open in a few states, and gyms were closed everywhere, we all had to do one thing in particular: listen to our bodies. After all, we no longer had a trainer on hand once a week to help us stay in shape. And we couldn’t visit a physiotherapist to get help with our cervical spine when it was sore after working from home.

And whoever listened to their body got answers: “Hey, get up again, your neck hurts,” or “I feel limp and puffy. I think I need some exercise” or even just “I’m hungry.” There are certainly people who found it difficult to listen, but anyone who got into the habit during the corona pandemic will thank themselves for many years to come. Another positive side effect was that lots of people started cooking at home. In the process, they realized that cooking can be fun and much healthier than always going out for dinner. Our tip: Stick to these habits, even once normality slowly returns. Listen to your body and cook for yourself as often as you can. Your health will thank you.

5. In post-acute cases, telemedicine has proved to be a success – during the pandemic and beyond.

As already mentioned: acute medical treatment is essential, pandemic or not. People with inflamed appendices need surgery and babies need to be delivered. Toothaches need to be treated, just like cardiac arrhythmias. Fortunately, we have a health care system in Germany that invests a great deal of time, money, and resources in acute treatments. Due to this and the quick action of politicians, Germany was even able to accept Covid-19 patients from abroad. Hospitals generally have enough equipment and personnel to provide appropriate care for all patients.

The situation is different in the field of post-acute treatment because once patients have been admitted, had their operations, or received initial treatment, they are often discharged with very little follow-up. Information and recommendations for dealing with their disease in everyday life are often in short supply. Prescriptions for physiotherapy or occupational therapy are often left to general practitioners. And extra medication and wound care? You’ll have to make do with some ibuprofen and dressings.

The reality is that both patients and clinics rarely have the time or resources for post-acute treatment. This is where telemedicine comes into play because so many post-acute measures can be carried out via a well-designed app. Telemedicine allows therapists and doctors to stay in touch with patients while they return to their daily lives. And given the inherent flexibility of telemedicine, treatment is even possible at home during a lockdown, or if the patient is away on a business trip.

6. When everyday life breaks down, we have to take care of ourselves.

It wasn’t just therapies and doctor’s appointments that were canceled during the lockdown; leisure activities were also restricted to our own four walls. All over the world, friends stopped getting together, family dinners turned into phone calls, music lessons took place via video call, and sports teams met over the internet, if at all.

So what can people do when they can’t see their friends or hug their family members? Thousands of videos were posted on social media of people making the most of their time. They renovated their apartments, practiced handstands, learned new languages. What social media showed much less of was people lying listlessly on the sofa, although there were at least as many people doing precisely that.

So we all learned what it takes to make us happy. Are my own four walls, a cell phone, and a full refrigerator all I really need? Or do I need personal contact with friends and hugs from family members? How important are parties and dancing the night away? Or is it the greenery of nature that I miss most when I can’t go out? 

While hotel bookings and holidays were canceled, we all took a little journey – into ourselves. It’s not easy to take care of yourself but it can be done. Out of necessity, most of us were able to find out exactly how well we could look after ourselves over the past few weeks and months.

7. Telemedicine provides care for those who are not mobile (enough).

There were lots of regulations during the corona crisis that restricted people’s mobility. Public transport posed a risk of infection, trains were canceled, and in some cases, people could only travel as far as the borders of their own state by a car.

But even without a crisis, some people find it difficult to get around. Sometimes, that’s because of a disability or restricted driving ability; in many cases, it is simply a question of time or physical distance. People living in rural areas, for example, loved having video consultation sessions with their family doctors, even though they were young and healthy or owned a car. People realized that they no longer had to drive for hours to get the help they needed. In Germany, being able to get sick leave without seeing a doctor in person also saved many patients money, pain, and time.

And let’s not forget that even after the crisis, there will still be people who cannot leave their houses. They, too, have a right to medical care – and this is where telemedicine can help.

8. The latest technologies are important if you want to reap the benefits of digitalization during a crisis.

Germany’s schools are just one example of institutions that have not been able to cope with the technological demands that have suddenly been forced upon them. As simple as it may sound, the internet alone is not enough to digitalize everyday processes. Having the right infrastructure is just as important as having a functioning internet. Where do I store my data, how do we communicate in groups? As a teacher, how do I ensure that a student sends me files that I can open? As a company, what tools can I use to track my employees’ working hours? And perhaps most importantly, how do we talk to grandpa when he doesn’t have a tablet or a smartphone?

Keeping up with the times is difficult. It can be exhausting. There are constant technical innovations, better tools, more secure software, fancier platforms. But it pays to stay up to date. Because when the next crisis hits, we’ll be ready. Even better next time.