COVID-19 has taken heavy toll on health workers and systems, Brown physician-scientist tells Congress

Dr. Megan Ranney, a practicing emergency physician and academic dean of Brown’s School of Public Health, told a U.S. House committee that the nation can learn from the past to build stronger, more viable health care systems.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Health care staffing and supply chain shortages, unreliable data and rampant misinformation are among the hurdles the country’s health care systems continue to confront as providers work to effectively battle COVID-19 and other potential future pandemics.

That’s what Dr. Megan Ranney — a Brown professor of emergency medicine and public health and academic dean at the University’s School of Public Health — told members of Congress in a Wednesday, March 2, hearing.

“All of this can be fixed,” Ranney testified. “As Americans, we have a long history of transforming a public health crisis into opportunity.”

Ranney was among a panel of experts whom lawmakers tapped into for insights on the struggles that health care workers and health care systems have faced since COVID-19 spread across the nation in 2020. Convened by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, the hearing was titled “Lessons from the Frontline: COVID-19's Impact on American Health Care.” 

In her opening remarks, Ranney, who is a practicing emergency physician, detailed the mental and physical impacts suffered by health care providers after working at a feverish pace to treat patients during a pandemic now headed into its third year. Those ranks of health care workers suffered a heavy toll, she said.

“The most significant reason for staffing shortages: the mental and emotional effect of repeated COVID-19 surges on our health care providers who keep showing up, but our work is getting tougher, and there are no reinforcements in sight,” she told lawmakers.

COVID also exposed weaknesses in health care data and information systems and in the supply chains on which providers rely, Ranney said.

“We need good data — timely, accurate, transparent, complete — to make good decisions about what’s needed when, where and for whom,” she said. “Although early PPE shortages have resolved, we face new and worsening problems with key tests, therapeutics and equipment for both COVID and non-COVID-related care.”

After the heated political battles prompted by the pandemic, more must be done to reestablish public trust in science and medicine after the past two years, Ranney said. 

“The increasing politicization, misinformation and public mistrust around COVID has had a deep impact on health care workers, public health and the quality of care provided,” she said. “Three-quarters of health care workers say that misinformation has negatively influenced both patients’ decisions to get vaccinated and patient care.”

Ranney outlined numerous solutions to lawmakers, including more support for health care workers, treating the medical supply chain “as a concern of national security and health,” and efforts needed to rebuild public trust.

“Every American wants to be able to show up at an emergency department and get timely and appropriate care for their emergency,” she said. “Right now, they cannot. Throughout the pandemic, we have relied too heavily on stop-gap solutions instead of addressing the underlying issues. I urge you. Please. Think bigger and do more.”

Ranney’s complete written testimony and a video of the proceedings are available on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce website.