Don't let the term 'elective' fool you, physicians urge the public

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As a growing number of hospitals pressed for resources due to the COVID-19 surge suspend elective surgeries, some healthcare professionals want the public to know exactly how important an "elective" procedure can be. 

The term "elective surgery" 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. 

As Americans learn of elective surgeries once again being postponed, physicians are taking to the web to debunk what can be a misnomer.

"The term 'elective' can sometimes be deceiving," Joseph Sakran, MD, a trauma surgeon with Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins Medicine, tweeted Aug. 10. "In general, we are NOT talking about people who are having to delay cosmetic surgery (as someone jokingly mentioned to me). Whether it's pain from a chronic hernia or the inability to adequately eat because of biliary disease, these issues can be debilitating."

"Saying 'oh, it's only elective surgeries being cancelled' undermines so much of how healthcare is in crisis mode with this prolonged pandemic that we are back at this point," Avital O'Glasser, MD, associate professor of medicine with Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, tweeted Aug. 10. 

"Friendly reminder that 'elective' surgery doesn't mean optional, it just means it doesn't have to happen right now at 3 a.m.," N. Seth Trueger, MD, assistant professor of emergency medicine with Northwestern Medicine, tweeted. "Most cancer and heart surgery, for example, are 'elective' in that we can schedule them for Tuesday."

Dr. Sakran said postponing surgeries now is even more demoralizing for patients whose suffering is prolonged and for healthcare professionals given the availability of COVID-19 vaccines. 

"Well it's one thing to cancel surgery when we had no choice and no vaccine was available," he tweeted. "We did the best we could with what we had. However, we are moving backwards. With a safe and effective vaccine available this is frankly unacceptable." 

Around the country, a growing number of hospitals and health systems are pushing back surgeries. On Aug. 9, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott asked hospitals in the state to voluntarily postpone some elective procedures to preserve resources for COVID-19 patients. Nashville, Tenn.-based Vanderbilt University Medical Center, the top hospital in the state, is rescheduling surgeries for the same reason. Several hospitals in Florida are suspending surgeries as COVID-19-related hospitalizations surge.

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