The president of the New Brunswick Medical Society says the serious backlog of elective surgeries in the province has been made worse by COVID-19.
“We’re aware of a large number of patients whose procedures have been delayed because of the shutdown for the pandemic,” said Dr. Chris Goodyear.
Geri Geldart, a vice-president with Horizon Health Network, said as of March 13 when non-urgent surgeries were put on hold, there were 16,353 patients waiting for surgery. By July 29, that number had risen to 16,564, an increase of one per cent.
While Horizon Health could not confirm the number of people waiting for orthopedic surgeries, Goodyear said it numbers in the thousands and has the largest number of wait times.
“Certainly it wasn’t unheard of for thousands of patients to be on the wait list for joint replacement surgery in this province,” he said.
Then with none of those surgeries done during the three-month shutdown, Goodyear said he wasn’t surprised by the number.
“It’s very hard to catch up despite our best efforts because although surgeons were not operating during the pandemic, other members of the health-care team that we work with were working,” he said.
Goodyear said operating room nurses and cleaning staff were assigned to work in other areas of the hospital and are entitled to take vacation time and get a respite when they can.
When asked about keeping operating rooms open longer each day and even on weekends to help catch up on the backlog, Goodyear said it would be hard to get people to work after hours because it involves more than just the surgeons.
“We had a system that was working at capacity prior to the pandemic, so there was very little leeway built into the system,” he said.
By June, surgeons at Horizon Health had reached their normal daily volume of surgery performed and are maintaining that level of operation, Geldart said.
“Across Horizon, operating rooms in our regional hospitals run seven days a week. We provide scheduled surgery Monday to Friday, while providing emergency surgery 24 hours per day, seven days per week,” she said.
Goodyear adds they also don’t want to burn out health-care workers because that would lead to further delays in the future.
Frustrations across system
He said he’s had conversations with Health Minister Ted Flemming about the topic.
“He is quite aware and quite concerned about the problem,” said Goodyear. “And again, his frustrations are the same as ours in terms that we had a system that was at capacity prior to the pandemic, so there is no easy solution in trying to deal with the backlog here.”
Goodyear said one option that the government and the regional health authorities are looking at is trying to maximize the use of operating rooms in smaller hospitals across the province.
Geldart said the health network is looking at new initiatives to increase operating room volumes. A new orthopedic surgery initiative is being launched in Saint John in September.
“This is a $4.2 million initiative funded by government and has a target to complete 900 joint replacements each year,” she said.
Geldart said while they are exploring other initiatives, many require additional specialized staff and physicians “that are in high demand, but limited in supply.”
Goodyear said people waiting for non-elective surgeries should stay in touch with their surgeon. If things worsen, make them aware.
He’s concerned about a potential second wave of COVID-19 in the fall.
Keeping a second wave as small as possible is important to allow the province’s health-care system to continue working without shutting down operating rooms.
“We really have to be aware that the system can’t take a shutdown of three months as we just went through,” Goodyear said.