Sunday, June 4, 2023

There will be another pandemic. And soon.

He was a leader in Ireland’s team to fight against Covid-19, but now he says another pandemic is coming, and disinformation will be the key battleground writes Michael McHale

There will be another pandemic ‘in our lifetimes’, one of the leading figures in Ireland’s response to Covid-19 has said.

Dr Ronan Glynn told a recent webinar that the Covid-19 crisis will act as a ‘tipping point’ for the acceleration of greater advancements in public health, and that fighting misinformation during the pandemic was as important as preventing the virus itself from spreading.

“One of the things I learned is that anyone who speaks with certainty when it comes to pandemics needs to be taken with a dose of scepticism,” the former Deputy Chief Medical Officer at the Department of Health told a recent webinar.

“I think in our lifetimes there will certainly be another pandemic, without a doubt. That will almost certainly come from the animal kingdom. But beyond that, I wouldn’t want to predict what it will look like because, despite what some will say, no-one predicted Covid when it emerged.”

Dr Glynn was speaking at an online event organised by UCD’s Institute for Discovery as part of its Human Health Impact and Technology series.

“I think when we look back in ten to 15 years’ time at this period, my view is we will see that the pandemic was the tipping point for acceleration into the next great wave of public health advancement,” he told webinar host Prof Patricia Maguire of UCD’s School of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science.

“And that’s one that will be driven by these new technologies – virtual digital technologies, automation, artificial intelligence, robotics, digital therapeutics. All of that is coming and it’s coming really fast.”

As well as preparing for these new technologies, Dr Glynn called on health systems to make better use of data to change the way healthcare is delivered.

He pointed to Irish figures which show that the country’s population aged over 65 has grown by 35 per cent in the last decade, compared to an average increase of 16 per cent across Europe.

“I think there’s real cause for optimism around data,” he added. “In the aftermath of the pandemic there’s a recognition at a global level that we can’t continue to try to change the ways we deliver health without better information, and without using the enormous amounts of data that we have differently.”

As well as using public health data to plan for the future, he also pointed to the ‘real potential’ to harness secondary information from wearable and sensor technologies ‘to change how we improve health for individuals and the population.’

Looking back on Covid-19, he added that many aspects of a country’s ability to manage a pandemic lie outside of its healthcare system.

“Things like digital literacy are going to be increasingly important. Misinformation was an enormous part of what we had to deal with globally over the course of the pandemic. I think it’s fair to say that managing the spread of that misinformation was just as important as managing the spread of the virus itself, in terms of maintaining solidarity and keeping the public on board with the message.

“Of course, we do need to make sure that our hospitals are fit for purpose. But more than anything else, from a health system perspective, we need to ensure that we have a workforce that’s adequately trained, that we have biostatistics and modelling capacity, and that our workforce is digitally literate so that when the next (pandemic) hits, we are ready in a rounder way.”

During the pandemic Dr Glynn was one of the most public faces of the national response and spent six months as Acting Chief Medical Officer and Chair of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET). Last September he joined EY Ireland as their Health Sector Lead, where he is focussing on what future health systems will look like.

“What I see is a completely different health ecosystem in the future which is about much more than what we would have traditionally understood as a health system in the last century – the four walls of the public hospital.

“As we look forward to five- or ten-years’ time, we will see very significant disruption in terms of what we understand as the health system. That gives me hope and excites me as I look forward.”

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