Study: Pandemic halts, delays 28 million elective surgeries

UW Medicine has seen a 65% decrease in total surgeries over a 12-week span of the virus, said Douglas Wood, surgery chair at the UW School of Medicine.

The repercussions from COVID-19 are being felt across all segments of society, and now thousands of surgeons worldwide have assessed the impact to canceled surgeries.

The CovidSurg Collaborative projects that 28.4 million elective surgeries worldwide will be canceled or postponed in 2020, based on data from participating nations’ peak 12-week spans. (The timing of the spans differ among nations.) The overall cancellation rate is projected to be 72.3%; in other words, less than 30% of scheduled elective surgeries will take place.

The modelling study, published May 15 in the British Journal of Surgery, indicates that each additional week of disruption to hospital services will be associated with 2.4 million more cancellations.

The researchers collected information from surgeons in 359 hospitals and 71 countries on plans for cancellation of elective surgery. This data was then statistically modeled to project totals for canceled surgeries across 190 countries.

Giana Davidson, a general surgeon at University of Washington Medical Center-Montlake, and associate professor of surgery at the University of Washington School of Medicine, partnered with this international team. She said the cancellation of elective surgeries has impacted our communities significantly, beyond what we can easily measure in financial losses for health systems. 

“These delays may have significant impact our patient’s quality of life, the ability to do their work, or care for their loved ones,” she said. “As we start the process of reopening, it is critical that we also strive for equitable access to surgical care across the communities we serve.”

In the United States, the CovidSurge Collaborative estimates that more than 4 million surgeries were canceled over the peak 12 weeks.

UW Medicine in Seattle began postponing elective surgeries on March 16, under Gov. Jay Inslee’s order, resulting in a 65% drop in total surgeries since then, said Douglas Wood, chair of UW’s Department of Surgery. These canceled procedures have caused great hardship for patients, he said.

“Surgery alleviates disability and pain, and it improves quality of life for people with joint or eye problems, narrowed blood vessels, or intestinal blockage,” he said. “Thousands of people have been asked to live with pain or delay their cancer surgery.”

Among all countries, orthopedic procedures were the largest group of deferred surgeries, composing 26% of the total. Head and neck surgeries were second, with 14.4%, and urology surgeries composed 12.3 percent.

The study contributors were based in the United Kingdom, Benin, Ghana, India, Italy, Mexico, Nigeria, Rwanda, Spain, South Africa and the United States. The lead author was Aneel Bhangu at the University of Birmingham in England.

The collaborative is a network of researchers focused on COVID-19’s impact on surgical care. More than 5,000 surgeons from 120 countries are participating in the CovidSurg program on various studies. Country-level data on canceled elective surgery is available in the study manuscript for 190 countries. This data is detailed across 15 medical specialties.

– Bobbi Nodell - 206.543.7129,  

Tony Moran with the University of Birmingham provided information for this item.

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