Sask. heart, brain specialists brace as health-care slowdown worsens amid COVID-19 surge

The long list of types of medical care now on hold across Saskatchewan includes home care, rehabilitation and diabetes counselling, but also key brain and heart procedures.

Emergency and urgent cases will still receive full care, but nearly all elective procedures on hold

Regina cardiologist Dr. Andrea Lavoie, foreground, says health-care professionals are frustrated and tired, but will do their best to care for anyone with urgent health needs. Most elective procedures and surgeries have been delayed or cancelled because of the record number of COVID-19 patients filling the hospitals. (Andrea Lavoie)

The long list of types of medical care now on hold across Saskatchewan includes home care, rehabilitation and diabetes counselling, but also key brain and heart procedures.

The Saskatchewan Health Authority provided a general list of surgeries and other care being delayed or cancelled as COVID-19 patients, most of them unvaccinated, fill the province's hospitals and intensive care units.

This comes as COVID-19 cases have been continuing to rise, with 426 new cases in the province announced Wednesday, 54 more than were reported the day before. Hospital numbers also set a new record for the fourth day in a row Wednesday. 

Specialists interviewed this week, including a neurologist and a cardiologist, provided details of changes for their patients. These include all "coiling" operations to prevent high-risk patients from suffering a brain aneurysm. In another example, all cardiologists were told Wednesday to cancel half of all heart stress tests, angiograms and diagnostic procedures.

"We're frustrated, tired, scared," Regina cardiologist Dr. Andrea Lavoie said.

Lavoie and Saskatoon stroke neurologist Dr. Brett Graham said anyone with an emergency will still receive the same care as always. They say anyone with urgent concerns or changes in their condition should not hesitate to call 911.

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Indefinite wait

But the non-emergent needs of hundreds, possibly thousands, of others across the province will have to wait indefinitely. Heart disease and stroke are two of the leading causes of death in Saskatchewan. Much of the care being delayed is designed to prevent or identify major problems, but that's not possible at the moment.

"We feel for our patients. They may be feeling abandoned," Graham said.

Graham said the COVID-19 surge has also affected where patients are housed. The most critical still have beds in Saskatoon and Regina hospitals, but others are now being told to stay in Yorkton or North Battleford or other smaller centres. Still others normally admitted to hospital are under the supervision of home care staff.

The Saskatchewan Health Authority also said Wednesday that adult COVID patients are occupying beds at the Jim Pattison Children's Hospital.

Lavoie and Graham said health-care staff are working around the clock to provide the best care they can to all patients.

But Lavoie said there is frustration and sadness as well, because none of this had to happen.

For weeks, health professionals, academics, scientists, statistical modelling experts, municipal leaders and many others pointed to evidence of a fourth wave driven by the more virulent delta variant of the coronavirus. The Saskatchewan Medical Association, the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses and the government's own medical health officers called for indoor mask mandates and vaccine passports.

Anti-mask and anti-vaccine residents rallied repeatedly to assert what they saw as their individual freedoms and rights. Premier Scott Moe and Health Minister Paul Merriman encouraged residents to act in a safe manner, but rejected calls for more government rules.

Saskatoon stroke neurologist Dr. Brett Graham says anyone suffering a health emergency will still get care, but dozens of his patients' elective procedures and surgeries will be delayed or cancelled because of COVID-19. (Jason Warick/CBC)

Late last week, with hospital and ICU numbers soaring to record levels, and with Alberta announcing a host of new restrictions, Moe issued the public health orders demanded by the experts.

Lavoie, Graham and others are predicting things could get much worse in the coming weeks until the new measures take effect.

"It's been really demoralizing for health-care workers, knowing we're about to see what we are, and there was a way to avoid it," Lavoie said.

No one from the Saskatchewan Health Authority was available for an interview.

But according to a list provided by the authority, the following are some of the health-care needs being cancelled or delayed:

  • Primary care — diabetes education, health counsellors, chronic disease management.
  • Home care — education, therapies, foot care, wound care, nursing supports.
  • Population and public health — dental health programs, health promotion, sexual health clinics.
  • Rehabilitation services.
  • Cardiosciences and neurosciences — outpatient clinics including heart function and stroke prevention clinics, stress tests, pulmonary function lab.
  • Maternal and children's outpatient services — Women's Health Centre, pediatric outpatients.
  • Geriatric services, including respite care.
  • Dermatology services.
  • Ambulatory care – eye centre, minor surgical procedures, cystoscopy, endoscopy.

A Saskatchewan Health Authority official said in the email that this list could expand or change as needed. The official said all cancer, emergent and urgent cases will be given the typical high priority.