Pandemic surgery delays exact an emotional toll, too, physicians say

As hospitals again pause nonemergency surgeries in response to surging COVID-19 patient volumes, healthcare leaders and physicians are closely watching what effect this will have on patients' health and healthcare experience. 

One of the most obvious concerns is that delaying care may worsen health conditions for patients with cancer or other serious issues. Another concern is that surgery delays will hinder the patient experience or disengage patients.

"I've seen patients get ready to have their open-heart surgery that day. I've seen patients have [a] brain tumor with visual changes, or someone with lung cancer, and their procedures are canceled that day, and they have to come back another day," Kent Dauterman, MD, a cardiologist and co-director of the regional cardiac center in Medford, Ore., told the The Seattle Times. "You always hope they come back."

There is also a mental toll — for both patients and physicians — that comes with long wait times for surgery and the uncertainty of when someone will receive much-needed care, reports The New York Times.

"It might medically make no difference, but emotionally it could have a huge impact,” Matthias Merkel, MD, PhD, senior associate CMO for capacity management and patient flow at Portland-based Oregon Health & Science University, told the Times.

Research shows canceling nonemergency procedures has been an effective way to free up intensive care unit beds for COVID-19 patients. 

"But we as a society have not really emphatically asked the question 'At what price in the long term?'" said Brajesh Lal, MD, a professor of surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine who studied the elective surgery pause during the pandemic's first wave. 

To thoroughly answer this question, more long-term research is needed, Dr. Lal told The Seattle Times. 

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