One of the most insidious things about the coronavirus crisis is that it can ruin people’s lives without the virus needing to infect them. Whether it’s amplifying underlying mental illness due to isolation or losing one job when living paycheck-to-paycheck, the pandemic is disrupting livelihoods in a manner that hasn’t been seen before during our lifetimes.
Those who stand to lose the most are perhaps non-coronavirus patients who were about to undergo surgery. Indeed, as COVID-19 cases became the centerpiece of healthcares systems around the world, a staggering amount of surgeries have had to be canceled or postponed.
According to a new study led by researchers at the University of Birmingham in the UK, as many as 28.4 million elective surgeries around the world will be canceled in 2020.
This projection is based on activity — or lack of it — during a 12-week period of peak disruption to hospital services due to COVID-19. The model put together by the research team suggests that each additional week of disruption to hospital services results in a further 2.4 million canceled surgeries, some of which are for life-threatening afflictions like cancers.
“During the COVID-19 pandemics elective surgeries have been cancelled to reduce the risk of patients being exposed to COVID-19 in hospital, and to support the wider hospital response, for example by converting operating theatres in to intensive care units,” said Mr. Aneel Bhangu, Consultant Surgeon and Senior Lecturer at the NIHR Global Health Research Unit on Global Surgery at the University of Birmingham.
“Although essential, cancellations place a heavy burden on patients and society. Patients’ conditions may deteriorate, worsening their quality of life as they wait for rescheduled surgery. In some cases, for example cancer, delayed surgeries may lead to a number of unnecessary deaths.”
Overall, around 73% of all planned surgeries worldwide would be canceled during a peak 12-week disruption due to COVID-19.
The most frequently canceled or postponed surgeries are orthopedic-related procedures, which would amount to 6.3 million surgeries. Canceled cancer-related surgeries would number around 2.3 million globally.
Earlier this week, another study found that the crisis has dramatically reduced the number of organ transplants. In the United States, the drop in the number of transplants from deceased donors was about 50% while France experienced a staggering 91% drop in transplants.
This year may see even more disruption to potentially life-saving surgeries if countries experience a second wave of infection on par or worse than seen in February and March.
In the UK alone, it is estimated that 516,000 surgeries have been canceled, 36,000 of which were cancer procedures.
The researchers estimate that it would take the UK 11 months to clear the backlog of canceled or postponed surgeries if the NHS somehow manages to increase the number of surgeries performed each by 20% compared to pre-pandemic activity.
“Each additional week of disruption to hospital services results in an additional 43,300 surgeries being cancelled, so it is important that hospitals regularly assess the situation so that elective surgery can be resumed at the earliest opportunity,” said Dr. Dmitri Nepogodiev, Research Fellow at the NIHR Global Health Research Unit on Global Surgery at the University of Birmingham.
“Clearing the backlog of elective surgeries created by COVID-19 will cost the National Health Service at least £2 billion. The Government must ensure that the NHS is provided with additional funding and resources to ramp up elective surgery to clear the backlog.”
The findings were reported in the British Journal of Surgery.