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By Amy Gómez, PhD, Senior Vice President, Diversity Strategy and Destry Sulkes, MD, Executive Vice President, Growth, Klick Health

Society’s collective shock from the pandemic has put intense urgency on learning about the virus and how to deal with it. As a result, societal health awareness is rising broadly, specifically around the risks of common Covid-19 comorbidities. Much of this awareness is fueled by outrage over the disproportionate toll the pandemic has taken on communities of color. People are also much more informed about Covid-19 lab testing and how it can save lives.

This newfound awareness is not only changing behaviors around Covid-19 now but will likely lead to ripple effects across other health conditions in the future. Life sciences leaders can leverage this health awareness momentum, convert it into health literacy, and direct it toward improvements in health behaviors and better outcomes.

When increased health awareness leads to increased health literacy, we see a corresponding increase in effective disease self-care, more appropriate use of health services like lab testing, and more adherence to recommended prevention behaviors like vaccination.

Health literacy is defined as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.”

With the non-stop Covid-19 media, most people are obtaining information, but there are likely major gaps across how the information is processed, and ultimately how it is understood. And of course, different sources of information have differing levels of accuracy.

Beyond the varied levels of health literacy and clarity on the risks of Covid-19 comorbidities, there are a few other things changing in healthcare throughout the pandemic.

First is the rapid uptake of telemedicine, which among other things, makes it much easier for people to get orders for lab tests. Some of these tests can be shipped directly to patients’ homes for self-conducted specimen collection, though others will require a visit to a nearby lab. This is important because ~70% of medical decisions rely on the results of lab tests. There are large gaps, between what medical guidelines recommend and the actual frequency of tests that are performed. These gaps are in part driven by the varying levels of information being obtained, processed, and understood.

Second is the rising importance of self-care to help others, such as staying healthier to avoid transmitting diseases and reducing doctor visits. Pre-pandemic self-care was more about the ‘self,’ but now society is recognizing how much we all impact each other, and there’s a growing expectation that we all do more to take care of ourselves, and therefore each other. This is an interesting shift — Hispanic and Black communities have long been more collectivist than the U.S. at large, prioritizing the ‘we’ over the ‘me’ and giving back to the community. The abrupt, drastic pressures of the pandemic have now provoked a broader shift in that direction — mainstream behavior is coming to resemble that of groups who have long experienced greater societal stressors.

Many are seeing data every day about the risks of Covid-19 mortality being directly related to not just age and ethnicity, but also to very real and widespread pre-existing comorbidities. People obtaining more information on how their immune system is compromised by these comorbidities, but they are starting to process and understand it, too. For example, between the weeks of March 20 and April 2, optimism in the Black community around the Covid-19 situation decreased by 2 points while stress and anxiety increased by 9 and 10 points respectively, suggesting that the dire reality of the epidemic had begun to set in. Hence linking more active self-care to a benefit against not only Covid-19 but many other diseases, will resonate more than ever and drive positive behavior change.

After the urgency subsides, health care companies should take an active role in ensuring the increased health awareness is converted into health literacy. If the right notes are hit, people will display a heightened understanding of health information and with it, the capability and motivation to make better health decisions, including the proper use of lab tests for screening and monitoring. Efforts to communicate around the critical importance of lab testing, will likely enjoy greater interest, uptake, and will have more impact.

Companies also have an opportunity and obligation to be more thorough and thoughtful about their communications for the populations who are disproportionately affected by both the pandemic and comorbidities. Black and Hispanic communities have historically demonstrated a more reactive approach to health management, and there is now a tremendous opportunity to foster more proactive behavior. Priority needs to be placed on providing communities with culturally relevant, easy-to-process, and understandable messaging disseminated through trusted channels to avoid a repeat of the current mortality disparities we are seeing now.

Action plan for life sciences leaders

The life sciences industry has the opportunity to improve self-care across the board, provided care is taken to help different groups progress along their own health literacy journeys. It is a perfect time to personalize messaging to drive that understanding, and we can start with prioritizing the need to get all the other lab tests people need for all their conditions, not just influenza and Covid-19.

In addition, companies that take into account patients’ social, cultural, and linguistic needs are more effective in being understood and motivating action. This approach will also build trust on the part of underserved communities, and help meet the specific and unique needs of each group.

For more details on how to implement these steps, please explore Life (Sciences) After Covid-19 to read the full article and find a collection of Klick Health perspectives designed to inform and inspire the life sciences community for the changes, challenges, and opportunities anticipated as a result of the global health crisis.