Nova Scotia

ER visits and surgeries fell by half in Nova Scotia's spring COVID-19 outbreak

New numbers from the Canadian Institute for Health Information show how the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled surgeries and impacted emergency rooms in Nova Scotia.

'People either sought care elsewhere or were afraid to come in some cases,' health institute says

Those who did visit the ER got attention quicker than in non-COVID-19 times, the data shows. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

New numbers showing how the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic led to cancelled surgeries and fewer visits to emergency rooms in Nova Scotia can help the health care sector plan for the future, say data experts.

The Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) has released new information on how Canada and the provinces and territories saw their hospitals change in the first wave of the pandemic from March to June, compared to the same time frame last year.

Nationally, emergency department saw about 25,000 fewer visits a day in April 2020 compared with April 2019, or about half the usual number of patients.

Although there was not enough specific Nova Scotia ER data to be included in the results, the province anecdotally reported a similar fall, said CIHI spokesperson Tracey Johnson.

"People either sought care elsewhere or were afraid to come in some cases," Johnson said Tuesday.

Due to this, the numbers show there was a 23-minute drop in wait times for those who did go to the emergency department in Nova Scotia.

Surgeries went down across the country as health care systems cancelled procedures to free up beds for potential COVID-19 patients.

There were 320,000 fewer inpatient surgeries and day procedures from March to June 2019 compared with 2020 in Canada (excluding Quebec), which amounted to about a 47 per cent fall.

Nova Scotia saw a 51 per cent drop in total surgeries during that time. Most were cancelled or postponed day surgeries, which include work on knees and hips, which fell 58 per cent compared to 2019.

Nova Scotia saw a drop of 51 per cent in total surgeries from March to June 2020, as compared to last year. (Syda Productions/Shutterstock)

In March, Canada was responding to what was happening in Italy and China, which had shown hospitals needed to be prepared for a surge of COVID-19 patients.

As much of the country enters a second COVID-19 wave, Johnson said having these numbers allows health care experts and physicians to figure out what worked and what didn't work. 

A lot of the numbers are also used to decide what hospital capacity will be needed in each province.

Family doctors, surgeons see fewer procedures

Compared with 2019, physicians also provided fewer services during the first wave of the pandemic. In Nova Scotia, that fell by 35 per cent by April. Family doctors had 21 per cent fewer consults and visits and a 44 per cent dip in procedures, while surgeons saw a 54 per cent drop in procedures.

Ontario saw 55 per cent of patient visits, physician-to-physician consults and psychotherapy provided online or by phone in April 2020. There is no similar data for Nova Scotia yet.

"We were certainly able to have the hospital system flex to be able to accommodate what was potentially coming," Johnson said. "I think it shows what can be done when there's focus."

There were also 41 per cent fewer initial home care screening assessments in Canada in April 2020 compared with the previous year. 

Johnson pointed out the data doesn't yet tell us how these changes impacted people, including whether they were not able to move into home care when needed, or had a condition worsen by not coming into the hospital.