Patients heading back to Alberta operating rooms for delayed elective surgeries

People whose hip replacements, hernia repairs and other elective surgeries were postponed by the pandemic could soon be heading for the operating room.

Pandemic postponed about 22,000 procedures in six weeks

Health Minister Tyler Shandro says the low number of hospitalizations due to COVID-19 means many elective surgeries can proceed in Alberta. (CBC)

People whose hip replacements, hernia repairs and other elective surgeries were postponed by the pandemic could soon be heading for the operating room.

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

"I know that cancelling surgeries and other non-urgent health care visits caused disappointment and stress for many Albertans, many of whom had been waiting already a long time for an important procedure, and I appreciate your patience," Health Minister Tyler Shandro said on Monday.

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

The province had estimated it would need staff and hospital beds for as many as 2,250 COVID-19 patients during the pandemic's peak. On Monday, 89 people were in Alberta hospitals with COVID-19.

AHS intends to do between 26,000 and 30,000 surgeries in the next six weeks, spokesperson Kerry Williamson said in a Monday email. That's about 70-to-80 per cent of the system's usual volume.

Surgeons have still been performing about 2,800 emergency and urgent procedures a week, including cancer surgeries.

Surgery pauses causes uncertainty

Cori Longo and Michael Sarson are among those Albertans affected by a postponed surgery date. Their two-year-old son Eliot was supposed to have surgery on April 2 to correct a lazy eye. The Edmonton family received a cancellation notice about a week beforehand.

Although Eliot's procedure has yet to be rescheduled, the couple says they're now racing the clock — Longo is pregnant, and the baby is due mid-June. They'd like Eliot to recover before his sibling arrives.

They do feel hesitant to take their child to hospital during a pandemic, but want to get the issue dealt with before the toddler's eyesight is affected.

"Because it's a day surgery, I think we'd be a little bit more willing to have it done, and have it done quickly," Longo said. "If there was a long-term recovery and he had to stay in the hospital, we wouldn't be as keen to go right away."

Cataract surgeries are among the first elective procedures to return to Alberta hospitals and private surgical centres after Alberta Health Services postponed all non-emergency surgeries on March 18. (Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press)

On Monday, Shandro said a mix of minor and major scheduled surgeries will resume first. The first few weeks will focus on cataract surgery, gynecological procedures, nose surgery, reconstructive plastic surgery, vascular, urology and other general day surgeries.

The patients with the most pressing health risks will have access first, Shandro said.

Surgical wait time initiative likely delayed

Modelling had predicted cases of COVID-19 to peak in Alberta in mid-May, with hospitalizations potentially hitting an apex in early June.

Shandro said the government may alter its plan if the rate of new COVID-19 infections rises or presents a risk to patients, health-care workers or stretches the capacity of the health-care system.

Only scheduled day surgeries will begin at first. Procedures that require an overnight hospital stay are still on hold.

Williamson said some patients may be rebooked with a different surgeon than initially planned.

The six-week pause on non-urgent surgeries is also anticipated to increase surgical wait times.

Tackling increased wait times for operations was an election platform plank of the United Conservative Party government. Premier Jason Kenney had promised to reduce surgery wait times to no more than four months by 2023.

According to the province's wait times reporting website, the time elapsing between the decision to treat someone and their moment on the gurney can be lengthy. In the last three months of 2019, it took 62 weeks to complete 90 per cent of recommended knee replacements and 49 weeks to complete 90 per cent of hip replacements.

In February 2020, the average wait time for a hysterectomy was 14 weeks.

The government intended to invest $500 million in a provincial surgical wait times initiative.

Shandro's press secretary, Steve Buick, said in a Monday email government may have to revisit the timeline of the surgical wait times initiative depending on how long it takes to get the health system working at full capacity.