The need to flatten the 4 curves of COVID-19

Responding to the pandemic requires us to “flatten the curve” that traces the physical impact of the disease. That's just the first curve. Additional curves are ascending for chronic disease management, mental health and economic health.

By | 2 minute read | June 15, 2020

Man sitting at table in home on laptop

As we face the COVID-19 pandemic, the world is discovering how connected, but also how fragile we are. The global community is deep into the response phase as of this writing.

Many of us are measuring progress of COVID-19 by visualizing the infamous infectious disease data curve, which represents the trajectory of the disease – by the daily incidence of new cases, hospitalizations or deaths.

In the fight against COVID-19, people are closely monitoring and working to “flatten the curve” that trace the physical impact of the disease on our collective health. That’s just the first curve. In my opinion, there are three more curves that are ascending and need attention:

Chronic Disease – Stay-at-home orders may cause disruption in care management for chronic diseases, such as hypertension, congestive heart failure, diabetes, asthma, COPD, cancer and arthritis. An April 2020 IBM Watson Health PULSE® Healthcare Survey found that 48% of U.S. healthcare consumers said they have delayed routine healthcare appointments and 31% have delayed a necessary healthcare service.1 There are similar curves to come for increased infectious disease (resulting from delayed vaccinations and seasonal influenza) and advanced stages of cancer (resulting from delayed preventive screenings like mammograms, Pap smears and colonoscopies). During the recovery phase, care teams will need to focus on how to reconnect to populations that need care.

Mental Illness – People, especially healthcare professionals and other frontline workers (e.g., delivery, groceries), are under tremendous pressure. Many are stressed, depressed and anxious due to the significant impacts of the disease and their worries about bringing it back to their households. Our April 2020 IBM Watson Health PULSE® Healthcare Survey found that 66% of respondents said their level of stress has increased regarding access to food and other necessities, and 41% report increased stress regarding elder/childcare.2  For some, the virus may cause a form of post-traumatic stress through lasting and dramatic changes to people’s lives.

Inequities – COVID-19 is affecting the economy and causing high rates of unemployment, food insecurity and housing challenges (e.g., social distancing). Our survey found that 54% of respondents are very concerned that COVID-19 will pose an economic risk to their community, which is higher than the rate of respondents who said they were very concerned about the health risks (50%).3 An important part of economic recovery is for employers to carefully evaluate conditions and determine when conditions are right to let employees return to work.

It’s difficult to prepare for and react to multiple challenges of this magnitude. To flatten these curves, we will have to leverage knowledge that can help to advance solutions. We must bring all these pieces together, so we’re more prepared to support hospital systems, providers, and researchers as they address and flatten the next waves of chronic disease, mental illness and economic recovery. Working together, we will emerge stronger after this crisis.

Listen to a podcast interview with Dr. Kyu Rhee about COVID-19 on Making Data Simple

  1. These figures represent responses from 3,005 survey participants interviewed from April 1 – 13, 2020. The margin of error is +/- 1.8%. This health poll is powered by the IBM Watson Health PULSE® Healthcare Survey, an independently funded, multi-modal (land line, cell phone, internet) survey that collects information from approximately 80,000 U.S. households annually. Learn more here:
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid.