Edmonton

Catching up on Alberta's surgery backlog could take 2 years, AHS medical director says

It may take up to two years for Alberta operating rooms to work through a backlog of elective and non-urgent surgeries postponed during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

'We're also adding new people to the list nearly every day, so it will take some time'

Since Alberta Health Services (AHS) temporarily halted elective surgeries on March 18, at least 22,000 people had procedures put on hold. (Shutterstock / StockLeb)

It may take up to two years for Alberta operating rooms to work through a backlog of elective and non urgent surgeries postponed during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since Alberta Health Services temporarily halted elective surgeries on March 18, at least 22,000 people had procedures put on hold.

The backlog means 80,000 patients are now waiting for surgery, said Dr. Mark Joffe, an Alberta Health Services vice-president and medical director for northern Alberta.

Working through the list could take anywhere from 12 to 24 months, he said.

"A large number of those patients, of course, were waiting before the pandemic," Joffe said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM on Tuesday. 

"As people have their operations, we're also adding new people to the list nearly every day so it will take some time to work through this. 

"We do have plans to ramp up the numbers of surgeries and to get through the list over the next year to two years." 

Surgeries initially bumped from Alberta hospitals to make room for potential COVID-19 patients resumed on May 4.  A lower number of coronavirus hospitalizations than expected prompted Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the province's chief medical officer of health, to say non-urgent day procedures could resume.

The first surgeries performed as operating rooms began functioning again included a mix of minor and major outpatient procedures, Joffe said, including hand operations, urological procedures and ear, nose and throat surgeries.

More invasive procedures that require hospitalization could begin as early as next week, he said.

Triaging the most urgent

A centralized booking office will coordinate surgery and procedure planning in each zone and AHS will begin contacting Albertans currently on waiting lists in the coming days to reschedule their procedures.  

Amid the backlog, patients are being carefully triaged, Joffe said.

"I want to reassure Albertans that we are working through the wait-lists and Albertans will hear from us if they are waiting for surgery," he said.

"We have a centralized triage process underway where we are looking at the urgency of surgery to ensure that those who need surgery quickly or urgently will get it as fast as possible. At the same time, we're looking at individuals who have been waiting the longest." 

Joffe said some areas of the province with lower infection rates, such as the Edmonton zone, will be able to resume regular operations faster than areas such as Calgary still dealing with active outbreaks and high rates of active infection. 

"It does make a difference and we'll be looking very carefully regionally at how we might begin surgeries," he said. 

"In the southern part of the province, there is more intense activity with COVID-19 and that may slow the introduction of surgical procedures." 

A surgical care initiative announced by the province in May means health-care facilities across the province are better equipped to overcome the backlog, Joffe said.

The project aims to shorten wait-lists by spending $500 million in the next three years constructing and renovating operating rooms. 

"We know that we've had challenges with wait times for a long period of time," Joffe said. 

"This was a mandate of the UCP government to get these surgical wait times down, and we had excellent plans in place to do exactly that. Of course, everything was put on hold because of the pandemic." 

'Absolutely necessary'

The government had estimated it would need staff and hospital beds for as many as 2,250 COVID-19 patients during the pandemic's peak. On Tuesday, 73 people were in hospital, including 12 patients in intensive-care beds.

AHS intends to do between 26,000 and 30,000 surgeries in the next six weeks, spokesperson Kerry Williamson said in an email last week.

Despite the significant surgical backlog, Joffe said the restrictions were necessary in the fight against COVID-19. 

"We know that this has been a hardship for Albertans and we thank those Albertans who have had to have their surgeries postponed. 

"This was absolutely necessary to help us plan and prepare for the care that Albertans would need through this pandemic."

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