Surgery delays: A pandemic effect patients, care teams dread

Omicron and staffing constraints pushed hospitals and health systems to once again suspend nonurgent, elective procedures — a move that hurts patients and their care teams.

Physicians told The Washington Post that notifying patients of their surgeries being postponed is one of the most difficult things they do during the pandemic, and the idea of prolonging patients' suffering is anguishing. In interviews, a patient rated the pain he felt from a ruptured cervical disk — for which his surgery has been indefinitely postponed at Mercy Health-St. Rita's Medical Center in Lima, Ohio — as a 12 out of 10. 

In addition to extended pain, pushed back surgeries leave more time for disease advancement. Certain cancers can advance to later stages in four to eight weeks, for instance. Even procedures considered low acuity, such as joint replacements or bariatric cases, will have material implications from delays through reduced activity, mobility and quality of life for patients. Delays in surgery have also been shown to result in higher rates of surgical site infections.

"I'd say it's a bona fide mess right now," Kenneth Kaufman, chair and founding partner of Kaufman Hall, told The Washington Post. "We seem to be back to square one. Omicron has significantly compounded staffing shortages in a very profound way."

Hospitals hit pause on surgeries over the last several weeks as growing COVID-19 inpatient volumes were compounded by omicron sidelining healthcare professionals infected with the virus. Vaccinated healthcare professionals experienced mild breakthrough cases that temporarily took them out of the workforce. 

Cleveland Clinic has extended its postponement of elective surgeries four times over the past month as thousands of employees were sidelined from COVID-19 infection. Hospitals in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Washington and Virginia are among those that have either moved back surgeries or complied with government officials' requests to do so in January.   

Healthcare professionals have taken issue with the industry term "elective," which does not describe the acuity of the medical condition or necessity of the procedure. Rather, the use of "elective" distinguishes these surgeries that are scheduled in advance from emergency surgeries, such as trauma cases. 

University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City postponed about 20 percent of its surgeries when at least 500 clinical and nonclinical employees were out sick or isolating from COVID-19 at the start of the month. 

"Around Christmastime and the week after Christmas, we didn't have to reschedule any operations for a period of three weeks, until January 1. Then the wheels came off," Robert E. Glasgow, MD, interim chair of the hospital's surgery department, told The Washington Post

On Jan. 14, the physicians at the hospital learned they could accommodate six additional surgery cases Jan. 18, leaving them in a mad dash to identify priority patients and determine who could present for surgery with less than four days' notice. 

"How can we find six cases that are most in need and are most able to come?" said Dr. Glasgow said.

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