COVID-19 has seen 600,000 fewer surgeries performed in Canada, new study shows – Global News

Jessica Bailey, who has been desperately waiting for a new kidney for years, tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday.


While her own health complications have kept her off the donor list, the COVID-19 pandemic has only prolonged the wait for the 36-year-old from Saskatoon.

Bailey was finally given the green light by her doctor on Sept. 15 for a transplant. Before a date could be set for her procedure, though, the province suspended all organ transplants. She was devastated.

“She’s had quite the long run,” said Melanie Bailey about her sister, who has been on dialysis for the past three years.

“She has no kidney function, so if she doesn’t get dialysis three times a week she could die within 10 days.”

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Jessica Bailey is suffering from a chronic kidney disease. Photo supplied by Melanie Bailey

As COVID-19 drags on into its third year, a new study is painting a grim picture about how the pandemic has strained Canada’s health-care system with a massive backlog of surgeries and delayed medical procedures impacting patients.

Data released by the Canadian Institute of Health Information (CIHI) on Tuesday showed that across the country, almost 600,000 fewer surgeries were performed between March 2020 and December 2021 compared with pre-pandemic numbers for 2019.

Even though the wait times decreased over an 18-month period between April 2020 and September 2021, patients had to experience repeated delays for elective surgeries, such as cataract, hip and joint replacements, as resources were prioritized for more urgent procedures like hip fracture repair, radiation therapy and cancer surgery.

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“We can see there’s been some rebounding in the surgeries and many are back up to near levels that they were pre-pandemic, but we still have the surgeries that weren’t done,” said Tracy Johnson, director of health system analytics at CIHI.

“We expect it to be a continuing problem for a little while,” she told Global News.

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During the first six months of the pandemic, 20 per cent fewer cancer surgeries were performed compared to the pre-pandemic period. But the number of surgeries soared last year.

Meanwhile, patients needing knee and hip replacements continued to experience longer wait times than the recommended time frame of 26 weeks, the CIHI data showed.

“I think we are now starting to catch up again,” said Dr. Shaf Keshavjee, a surgeon at the University Health Network in Toronto.

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Initiatives like additional hours, building extra operating room space and extending the length of operating room days at Toronto General Hospital and Toronto Western have helped increase the surgery volumes.

Despite the increased efforts, Keshavjee estimates it will take several months to get back on track.

“Even if we’re doing 110 or 115 per cent of the usual run rate, you can see it’s going to take us 10 to 20 months to catch up on the backlog,” he told Global News.

The delays have only increased the health risks for patients.

For Bailey, getting COVID-19 on top of a chronic kidney disease has deteriorated her condition even more, making her “extra sick,” her sister said, with the added coughing and body aches.

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A study published in the International Journal of Cancer in November 2021 suggested pandemic-associated delays in Canada could result in about 20,000 additional deaths from cancer over the next decade.

Another more recent study published in the CMAJ in March showed that cancer surgery delays brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic could affect long-term survival for many patients.

In a July 2021 survey published in the Lancet medical journal, 74 per cent of cancer patients in Canada reported that the delays had a major impact on their mental and emotional well-being.

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The backlog is not only impacting vulnerable patients waiting for treatment but is also increasing the burden on health-care workers, already struggling with burnout after two years of fighting the pandemic.

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Most provinces are still grappling with staffing issues, health-care workers say.

“We’ve been working so hard, we’re short-staffed and a lot of people are tired and now we’re asking them to do more,” said Keshavjee.

Meanwhile, amid a sixth wave, “hospitals are still being hammered” with COVID-19 patients, said CIHI’s Johnson.

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At the end of March, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said the country’s universal health-care system is “at risk” and announced a $2-billion pledge to help fix the surgery backlog.

Ontario’s share of the recent one-time federal funding, announced on March 25, is $775.5 million, the province told Global News. Newfoundland and Labrador will receive approximately $27 million. Saskatchewan’s portion is roughly $62 million.

However, not a single province could tell Global News last month what their plans for the money are as of yet.

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Going forward, better planning and more resources need to be diverted to managing the surgical patients, said Keshavjee.

“We have the spaces to do it, we have the surgeons to do it and I think that we need to sort of organize the system to ramp up across the board.”

— with files from Global News’ Irelyne Lavery 

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