Doctors warn of significant delays in hip and knee surgeries due to COVID-19

The number of Quebecers waiting for orthopedic procedures has shot up since January.

The number of Quebecers waiting for orthopedic procedures has spiked since January

The pandemic has significantly increased wait times for orthopedic surgeries, with 85,000 elective surgeries postponed. (Shidlovski/Getty Images)

Brigitte Unterberg has been in pain for years, even at the slightest movement, due to hip bursitis, which causes inflammation build-up around her joints. 

After trying physiotherapy and cortisone injections, she was told she needs surgery to relieve the pain.

But months later, she is one of thousands of Quebecers still waiting for orthopedic surgery, after 85,000 elective operations were postponed without being rescheduled.

The number of people waiting for elective surgeries has spiked since COVID-19 slashed operating room capacity, according to data obtained by Radio-Canada.

"I was told my doctor hasn't even resumed operating," Unterberg said. 

She said the more she waits, the worse the pain gets.

Jobs lost, marriages ruined due to delays: surgeon 

Data from the Health Ministry shows the number of people currently waiting for a hip surgery in Quebec is 34 per cent higher than average. For knee surgery, the number of people waiting for an operation is up 40 per cent.

"With COVID, it is not surprising that the delays are exploding," said Dr. Pascal-André Vendittoli, an orthopedic surgeon at Maisonneuve-Rosemont hospital, which saw several outbreaks in the spring.

When surgeries started back up in the summer months, hip and knee procedures took a back seat to oncology procedures, he said.

Staffing shortages are also making the situation worse, Vendittoli said, because many of the nurses who were sent to long-term care homes in the spring are exhausted. 

Hai Nguyen, a surgeon specializing in hip prosthetics at Charles-Le Moyne hospital, said he has only operated on three cases in three months — all of which were essential to the patient's survival.

Although those on waiting lists are not facing life-threatening situations, Nguyen said, they are still suffering greatly from the delays.

"Some had to stop working," he said. "They lost their income and sometimes even their marriage."

Dr. Hai Nguyen, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in hip prosthetics, says he has only carried out three operations in three months. (Radio-Canada)

Nguyen is one of several doctors suggesting private operating rooms be used to deal with the delays, with the province footing the bill.

"We must use these private clinics because the population is in dire need," he said. 

Quebec's health ministry, in turn, says it is trying to catch up, and is "encourag[ing] establishments to enter into agreements with specialized medical clinics to help resume activities."

With files from Radio-Canada's Davide Gentile