Sask. could take more than a year to catch up on some delayed surgeries, health authority says

·3 min read
The Saskatchewan Health Authority is working with the Ministry of Health on how to address the surgical backlog that's resulted from the fourth wave of COVID-19.  (Syda Productions/Shutterstock - image credit)
The Saskatchewan Health Authority is working with the Ministry of Health on how to address the surgical backlog that's resulted from the fourth wave of COVID-19. (Syda Productions/Shutterstock - image credit)

Though planning is underway to address the backlog, it could take more than a year to catch up on some surgeries delayed by the fourth wave of COVID-19, the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) says.

The stark outlook came during a COVID-19 media briefing hosted by the Saskatchewan Public Health Agency on Tuesday. Scott Livingstone, the health authority's CEO, was asked about the ongoing impact of redeploying workers to cope with a still-high number of ICU patients with and without COVID-19.

Livingstone said that while the health system has been able to keep up with 50 per cent of scheduled surgeries during the fourth wave, there remains a gap.

From Sept. 19 to Oct. 19 of this year, the SHA proceeded with about 2,000 fewer surgeries compared to before the pandemic, Livingstone said.

"It's a small number of procedures that makes up a big component of the waits, in particular orthopedic surgery for joint replacement, both hip and knee," Livingstone said.

"[That] is going to be one of our single biggest challenges."

Pressed on how long it might take to catch up with the overall surgical backlog, Livingstone said he was hesitant to speculate.

"It's not just about what's on the waiting list today," he said. "It's what coming to the waiting list. Is there a large number of people that haven't been able to see their family physicians to be referred? And then just that normal cadence for surgical procedures."

Livingstone said the timeline for addressing the larger backlog is also tough to predict because "we haven't built that plan and had it approved and staffed because we're still in the middle of a pandemic."

"All options will be on the table."

Livingstone then offered his outlook on major joint surgeries.

"If we stopped adding people to the wait list based on what our historical volumes would be for orthopedic surgery, it wouldn't take three years, but it would take well within a year, a year and a half, just to clear that waiting list," he said.

Adam Hunter/CBC
Adam Hunter/CBC

Later, in the legislative assembly, Premier Scott Moe said the Ministry of Health was "hard at work" on a surgical catchup policy.

The SHA has been prioritizing urgent surgeries, the premier said.

In a scrum with reporters, Health Minister Paul Merriman said the province has been able to proceed with 88 per cent of planned surgeries in 2021 so far.

No patient transfers currently planned

Livingstone also offered some big-picture statistics on surgical delays, saying that between March 15, 2020, and Oct. 9, 2021, approximately 26,000 non-emergency surgeries were delayed.

That figure needs to be contextualized, however. Livingstone pointed out that when surgical programs were restarted this past summer after the third wave, "we got up to almost 95 per cent of pre-pandemic volumes."

During the fourth wave, about half of planned elective surgeries have proceeded, he said.

Livingstone also noted progress on other fronts, as the number of overall COVID-19 hospitalizations has recently decreased slightly.

In mid-September, the SHA noted that close to 50 patients requiring high-flow oxygen could not receive an ICU bed even though they needed one.

"I think today the number is down to 20," Livingstone said.

Saskatchewan Health Authority
Saskatchewan Health Authority

The fourth-wave pressures on Saskatchewan ICUs remain significant, he said, noting that the number of non-COVID ICU patients is currently keeping pace with the number of infected intensive care patients.

Marlo Pritchard, the CEO of the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency, said that as of Tuesday, there was a total of 97 people inside Saskatchewan ICUs — 48 with COVID, 49 without — plus 26 former Saskatchewan ICU patients still under care in Ontario.

One ICU patient was moved back to Saskatchewan on Friday, with another person expected to be "repatriated" on Tuesday.

"At this point in time, at least in the next 48 hours, we don't anticipate doing any out-of-province transfers," Prichard said.

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