In 6 months, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the US health care system and economy. As of July, the United States reported more than 3 million COVID-19 cases and more than 130,000 deaths.1 Real gross domestic product declined at a rate of 4.8% in the first quarter (after growing by 2.1% in the fourth quarter of 2019).2 In April, more than 20 million Americans reported losing their jobs. Across the country, infection rates are increasing, and hospital and other resources are under significant strain.

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As devastating as these effects are, there is reason for guarded optimism. “Big Event” disruptions like the pandemic present incredible challenges, but also offer unique opportunities. With an understanding of history, health care leaders can navigate near-term uncertainty while accelerating needed transformation. By doing so, the ultimate impact of COVID-19 will be defined not by the aforementioned metrics but by its role in driving 3 changes: (1) compelling provider organizations to act more as a “system,” (2) transforming the care model to achieve the Quadruple Aim,3 and (3) ensuring that care is organized around the consumer.

Understanding Big Events

Our team has analyzed past Big Event disruptions such as the 1918–1919 and 1957–1958 influenza pandemics, economic shocks such as the Great Depression and global financial crisis of 2008, and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.4 By looking across these Big Events, we have found 3 key principles to follow.

Principle #1: there is a silver lining

Despite having a near-term negative impact, Big Events create conditions favorable to new growth. During the 1957–1958 influenza pandemic, Sony introduced its transistor radio into the United States. The product sold more than 7 million units, created a new industry category, and accelerated Japan’s economy for the next decade. Businesses facing greater financial and operating pressure focus more intently on what customers want and innovate to address unmet needs. Consumers, facing their own constraints, are forced to experiment with new ways of solving important needs. Following the 2008 financial crisis, many small businesses looked for alternative sources of capital. Square, the payments start-up, tapped into this need and found quick success. Today, Square, Airbnb, and other businesses created during the financial crisis have created an estimated $250B of value.

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To capture the silver lining, health care leaders need to adopt a growth mind-set. Early in the pandemic, providers accumulated a large backlog of deferred appointments, referrals, and procedures. Recapturing this backlog will require addressing consumers’ fears concerning safety and developing a trusted relationship with them. This provides an opportunity for systems to make strides in innovating consumer experience and differentiating from competitors to capture market share. Many systems are adopting a centrally coordinated approach to offer consumer-friendly hours and the ability to schedule appointments at the nearest location. To alleviate infection concerns, systems are aggressively communicating efforts to ensure patient safety. Some systems are creating “COVID clinics” to consolidate volume or creating stand-alone wards within existing facilities. Finally, there has been tremendous growth in virtual visits, accelerated by growing consumer demand, increasing physician adoption, and enabling government regulation.