Preserving elective surgeries during COVID-19: lesson learnt from 2020


The COVID-19 crisis has put a spotlight on health systems and exposed their vulnerabilities. It has brought together stakeholders including governments, academia & researchers, hospitals & healthcare providers and industry to work together on solutions at an unprecedented scale, which we all hope may help save lives and prevent greater human suffering in 2021.

The devastating consequences of this crisis are clearly broad and heavily impact non-COVID patients. Unfortunately, many patients face delayed access to prevention & screening programmes, surgeries, and other treatments. As many have said, ‘the COVID crisis is a marathon, not a sprint’, so we need to draw learnings from 2020 and do our best in ensuring optimal healthcare for all patients in 2021.

Delayed access to surgeries for non-COVID patients

During the initial outbreak of SARS-CoV-2, many European hospitals suspended surgeries and hospital treatments in hope of reducing infection rates and preserving resources for COVID-19 patients.

The postponement of elective surgeries and hospital treatments has resulted in a backlog of procedures with ongoing delays due to the overall diminished capacity of health systems. The current situation is quite diverse in many European countries and regions but all countries face serious challenges to healthcare delivery.

It is important to consider the consequences of such delays in surgeries and treatments. There are concerns that delayed treatment of conditions because of pandemic-related cancellations will lead to deterioration in individual patients’ health, quality of life and ability to work and contribute to society, which at a collective scale may cause substantial societal burden and economic impact. Therefore, catching up the backlog in a safe manner should be seen as an investment in citizen’s health and well-being as well as in the economy, rather than a drain on finances.

On Monday, 18 January 2021, EHMA hosted a webinar on this topic, discussing the lessons learnt from the pandemic from three different country perspectives: the Netherlands, the UK, and Italy. Let’s consider some of the main points raised by the panellists on how treatments and elective surgeries can safely and effectively be preserved or resumed:

  1. Overcoming the most critical moments of the pandemic and preventing further delays:

Effective strategies to anticipate potential delays at the most critical moments of the pandemic are important and should identify early interventions to resume treatments as soon as possible. Among the safest and most effective measures to achieve this, the panellists highlighted:

  • Prioritizing vaccination of all HCPs;
  • Increasing hygiene measures at hospitals starting with security staff outside, instructing patients to follow protective practices even before entering;
  • Separating day-clinic patients from Emergency patients to create “COVID free” or “green zone” hospitals;
  • Adjusting shift schemes to manage well-being and account for the mounting strain on health workers;
  • Implementing dashboards to help track and anticipate the hospital’s burden to potentially manage the workload and capacity among the broader network of available service centres in the health system.
  1. Managing the backlog

As soon as the most challenging moments of the pandemic are overcome, it is also recommended to plan strategies to manage the backlog of patients whose treatment has been postponed. Sharing of best practice and learnings among hospitals as well as governments is highly encouraged.

  1. Shifting to a data-powered recovery

Further to the exchange of experiences, hospitals and governments could also greatly benefit from the exchange of safe, reliable, and comparable health data. All stakeholders can draw lessons from this crisis to increase the use of patient-reported outcomes and adopt digital services in primary and secondary care, both to support the immediate recovery as well as to inform and enable the transformation of healthcare systems to become more value-based and more resilient for the longer term.

Admittedly, more research and data is needed to assess, understand, and better manage the impacts of the delays in surgeries and treatments. Sharing learnings and best practices can help hospitals prevent and tackle these delays in a safe and effective way for patients, health workers, and health systems. Governments around Europe should already be thinking about recovery plans and strategies to achieve optimal levels of surgical activity in 2021. This will require continuous collaboration among stakeholders. We hope this webinar has served as a relevant step in this direction, providing health managers, healthcare practitioners and policymakers with valuable insights and learnings from the real-world experiences of our panellists to help guide the way forward.

You can watch the recording of the webinar here below:

All the materials and resourses mentioned in the webinar can be found here.

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