Saskatchewan

Nearly 30,000 Sask. residents on wait-list for surgery as COVID-19 taps resources, latest data shows

Less surgeries are being performed as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to put a strain on the healthcare system, its staff and resources. 

Surgeries continue to get cancelled as resources are redirected to help COVID-19 patients

Saskatchewan ICUs are seeing younger COVID-19 patients in hospital. They often require critical care for longer periods of time. (Alison Northcott/CBC)

With COVID-19 fuelling a surge in hospitalizations, the latest data provided by the Ministry of Health shows that as of December 31, 2020, there were 29,650 people on a waiting list for surgery. 

The ministry said about five in 10 patients receive their surgery within 23 days. 

Fewer surgeries are being performed as the pandemic continues to put a strain on the healthcare system, its staff and resources. There were nearly 1,500 fewer surgeries performed from October to December 2020 than during the same period the previous year. 

Peter Gebert, 66, is one of many who remains waiting. He has been on a priority list for esophageal surgery since last fall, but it continually gets delayed. He continues to weigh the option of accessing health care in the United States. 

He has a new surgery date in mid-May, but he's not confident it will happen.

"Everyone is attending to COVID in one way or another, including the cleaning people," Gebert said. 

"So they're just not available, and ask them to come in and work extra, they're all burned out, and there's nobody to replace them. So it's not so much the surgeons themselves, it's all the support that goes with it. That's how it was explained to me."

Resources have been redirected away from surgeries in order to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Cancelled surgeries make room for COVID-19 patients

Last April, the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) released a pandemic response plan that laid out priority surgeries. Cancelling non-emergent and non-urgent surgeries was one way the health authority could provide care for those sick with the virus.

"With the current surge in patients, particularly in Regina and area, there have been cancellations of surgical procedures — particularly those requiring an inpatient bed for recovery," the Ministry of Health said in a statement. 

"In addition to ensuring we have bed capacity, staff with critical care experience have also been redeployed to support the expansion of critical care."

Throughout April, Saskatchewan continued to have the highest rate of hospitalizations in Canada, driven by the B117 variant first detected in the U.K.

Surge capacity at Saskatchewan hospitals 

From April 1 to 26, there were 68 patients admitted to ICUs, which is more than any other point in the pandemic. 

During a town hall meeting with physicians, the SHA said people are staying longer in the ICU than ever before and being admitted at faster rates. While the rate of hospitalizations has slowed down, the SHA anticipates admission will continue to grow with patients staying longer in hospital.

In this file photo, doctors in Ontario surround a COVID-19 patient who is in the ICU. The SHA has not allowed media access inside Saskatchewan ICUs. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

ICU patients are being treated in different wards and there is some triaging — meaning doctors are making decisions on who can get care now and who can not.

As of April 28, the SHA had made space for 48 additional critical care beds.

Many people caught up in the system

Doctors continue to make decisions about whether a surgery is considered urgent.

The SHA continues to do surgeries for cancer patients, with surgeons assigning priority to cancer procedures on a case by case basis.

Gebert said people like him, who have been waiting months for surgery while living in discomfort, feel like they are caught up in the system.

"Even before COVID hit there was a major waiting list. If anything I wish this could get fixed for everyone," Gebert said. 

"Accessibility to health care here was a right, but the pendulum is swinging now and it's becoming a privilege. When there's triaging happening, that switched it from a right to a privilege."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Have a news tip? Email mickey.djuric@cbc.ca or find her on Twitter @mickeydjuric

With files from Bonnie Allen.

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