Pandemic could postpone, cancel 400,000 surgeries nationwide: Western University researcher

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The COVID-19 pandemic could result in the postponement or cancellation of close to 400,000 surgeries in Canada in 2020, creating a backlog that could take almost a year to be cleared.

The staggering projections are part of a new study, completed in collaboration with a Western University professor, looking at the impact the pandemic has had on surgical procedures worldwide.

“This has never happened before on a global basis in an era where we have the volume of surgery we have today,” Janet Martin, an associate professor at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, said in a statement.

Most elective surgeries in Canada have been postponed since mid-March due to the pandemic as hospitals shifted resources to deal with an expected surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

According to the modelling study, completed in conjunction with researchers at England’s University of Birmingham, Canada could reach the 400,000 figure, which includes more than 27,000 cancer procedures, if disruptions caused by the pandemic continue for another four weeks.


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“The cancellations were necessary in order to ensure sufficient capacity for COVID-19 demand, and also to allow time to evaluate whether usual volumes of surgery could continue safely in the context of COVID-19 without risk of infection to patients,” Martin said.

The study also shows that, once restrictions are lifted, it could take 11 months to clear the backlog only if the number of surgeries performed each week is increased by 20 per cent compared to pre-pandemic figures.

“Understanding these numbers will help to prepare for post-peak-pandemic in order to start a plan for reopening elective surgery in a way that is safe and manageable,” Martin said.

The study, completed with information provided by surgeons across 359 hospitals and 71 countries, anticipates the pandemic could lead to more than 28 million surgeries being cancelled this year across the world. This is based on a 12-week period of peak disruption to hospital services during which 72.3 per cent of planned surgeries would be cancelled.

Each week disruptions continue could lead to a further 2.4 million cancellations, the study, published in the British Journal of Surgery, projects.

Most of the cancelled surgeries, or 6.3 million, will involve orthopedic procedures over a 12-week period. An estimated 2.3 million cancer surgeries will also be cancelled or postponed over the same time-frame.