Nfld. & Labrador

Surgery backlog at 'crisis' point, says N.L. medical association

There are 6,000 backlogged surgeries at two St. John's hospitals alone, part of a backlog of surgeries that have built up due to COVID-19 shutdowns and the cyberattack on the province’s health-care system.

6,000 backlogged surgeries at 2 St. John's hospitals alone

Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association president Dr. Susan MacDonald says the backlog of surgery procedures is most acute in St. John's but is a problem across the province. (Patrick Butler/CBC)

The association representing Newfoundland and Labrador's doctors wants the provincial government to make a plan for eliminating a backlog of surgeries that have built up due to COVID-19 shutdowns and the cyberattack on the province's health-care system.

In a media conference Friday morning, Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association president Dr. Susan MacDonald said the situation has become a crisis.

"Many patients are now waiting two to four years for necessary surgeries, and the backlog is growing," MacDonald said. "Each one of those cases is a person who is waiting for a surgical procedure that could significantly improve the quality of their life."

MacDonald said the surgery backlog is a problem across the province — including at hospitals in Corner Brook, Gander, Grand Falls-Windsor and Carbonear — but is particularly acute in St. John's. She said surgeons at the Health Sciences Centre and St. Clare's Mercy Hospital pooled data and found 6,000 backlogged cases.

MacDonald said the backlog affects patients waiting for general surgery, urologic surgery, orthopedic surgery, thoracic surgery, neurosurgery, plastic surgery, gynecologic oncology surgery and ENT surgical procedures.

Government 'open to solutions': Furey

Premier Andrew Furey said Friday surgical delays in Newfoundland and Labrador aren't as bad as they are in other parts of Canada, but  acknowledged that fact is little comfort to patients waiting for procedures.

He said the government has begun taking some steps to eliminate the backlog, like offering outpatient surgeries that would normally be in-patient.

"We are open to solutions. We'd like to have a dialogue with the NLMA on potential solutions," he said.

MacDonald said many surgeons were not consulted before surgeries were cancelled, leaving them "scrambling" to explain the cancellations to their patients. She said surgeons would like to see better collaborations.

She said the NLMA wants the government to include people involved in surgeries on the front lines, like nurses and the surgeons themselves, in its planning process. Part of that plan would involve increasing the number of operating rooms in use and extending their hours.

The NLMA wants the government to set a fixed date for bringing the surgery backlog back to pre-pandemic levels, and create an online dashboard to track its progress.

"If the government can report the weekly numbers on COVID vaccination rate they can certainly report on the reduction of surgical backlog as well, which is a tremendous public health issue in the long term," MacDonald said.

Furey said he he's open to meeting with the NLMA and others about the surgical backlog.

"I'm not opposed to solutions that work," he said.

Impact on patients

MacDonald said reduced capacity for cancer operations during the height of the Omicron wave in January and February meant more than 200 procedures were delayed.

Dr. Paul Johnston, a urologist and cancer surgeon, said delaying surgeries can result in severe consequences, and telling a patient their surgery has been cancelled is "awful."

"To sit on my hands for most of two years … it burns you inside," Johnston said, his voice breaking.

Dr. Paul Johnston, a urologist, says telling patients their surgeries have been cancelled is 'awful.' (Patrick Butler/CBC)

Dr. Janelle Taylor, a thoracic surgeon, said surgeons are seeing patients with more advanced illnesses than before the pandemic. Since cancer is a progressive disease, she explained, the impact will be felt down the line.

"The patients aren't going to immediately have any consequence at the moment that you can tell. But down the line, because of these more advanced cancers, their prognosis is worse."

Johnston said eliminating the backlog isn't as simple as paying surgeons to work more hours. 

"You need nursing support to pull that off. You need anesthesia as well. You need more beds in the hospital because now you have more post-op surgical patients, not only on the floors, but in the recovery room and also in the ICU."

Johnston said the association is also urging the province to come up with a plan to prevent another backlog of surgeries in the event of another wave of COVID-19 or a similar crisis.

"If we don't plan for something like this to come around, we're going to shoot ourselves in the foot."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Mark Quinn


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