Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia Health starts working through 2,600 cancelled surgeries

Nova Scotia Health says lessons learned from the beginning of the pandemic led to a reduced impact on patients during the third wave.

43 per cent of cancelled surgeries have already been removed from the wait list

Nova Scotia Health cancelled about 2,600 surgeries through the third wave of the pandemic. It's unknown how long it will take to eliminate the wait list. (Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock)

Nova Scotia Health says lessons learned from the beginning of the pandemic led to a reduced impact on patients during the third wave.

The health-care system returned to capacity this week and is now focusing on the backlog of patients whose surgeries were cancelled.

The health authority says about 2,600 surgeries were cancelled through the third wave. That's compared to 3,300 in the first.

Bethany McCormick, vice-president of operations for the northern zone, said the smaller number still reflects several thousand Nova Scotians who potentially faced hardships by the delays.

"It can't be underestimated what those patients and families are feeling and experiencing, and we know it's real for them," she said.

"We're really sorry to take the step to do those cancellations."

Of the cancelled surgeries, Nova Scotia Health said 43 per cent have since gone ahead, been rescheduled or removed from the wait list.

'True impact' unknown

Despite the progress, Dr. Aaron Smith said they can't estimate how long it will take to handle the backlog because the wait list doesn't reflect actual surgical needs.

Smith, the medical executive director for the northern zone, said they have no idea how many people have yet to receive a diagnosis because they couldn't access health services. He points to access to physicians, tests or even transportation as factors that could be part of the delay.

"As we move through this, we're going to be certainly prioritizing getting those patients through, looking at the most critical cases first — urgent cases, cancer-related cases, etc.," he said. "The true impacts of our COVID experience will certainly come to light over the next months to years."

Hospitalizations grew in 3rd wave

The third wave saw higher hospitalization numbers, leading the health-care system to move patients to different zones. About a dozen COVID-19 patients were sent to the northern zone, said McCormick.

She said medical teams had to determine what procedures could go ahead, while at the same time freeing up beds for COVID-19 patients. 

McCormick said they postponed procedures that weren't urgent but required an overnight stay. Day surgeries and cancer procedures largely went as planned

In the first wave, Nova Scotia Health performed about 30 per cent of its normal surgical numbers. A year later, the teams went forward with 80 per cent, except in the two-week window where the wave peaked. During that time, they cut surgeries down to half of their usual capacity.

"We tried to be very agile," McCormick said. "We largely did not change diagnostic imaging services at all in wave three."

Smith added, "This is something we've been assessing day to day, and sometimes hour to hour."

Scheduling time off

While Nova Scotia Health tries to move through the backlog as fast as possible, it also needs to give staff a breather.

McCormick said some employees have been working around the clock for weeks on end. She said they'll likely be given the first priority to take some time off "so that they can actually have that bit of time to recharge and rejuvenate."

Both McCormick and Smith said the changes implemented over the last few weeks will likely be the base model going forward if Nova Scotia does face another wave.

Smith said they'll likely continue to book surgeries and procedures with short-term notice so that there's flexibility to adapt if needed.


Carolyn Ray


Carolyn Ray is a videojournalist who has reported out of three provinces and two territories, and is now based in Halifax. You can reach her at