What to do if your elective surgery is postponed

January 18, 2022 in Disease Management  •  By Miles Varn, MD
elective surgery

Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, when hospitals were overwhelmed with patients who were seriously ill with the virus, most of them indefinitely postponed all elective surgeries. As the initial surge decreased, these surgeries were rescheduled. Unfortunately, the omicron variant of the virus has put hospitals in a difficult position once again. Because of the marked increase in the number of COVID patients in hospitals and staff shortages, many are again postponing elective surgeries.

The term “elective surgery” can be confusing. Calling a procedure elective doesn’t always mean it’s optional, like a cosmetic procedure or cataract surgery. Elective surgery is surgery that can be safely scheduled in advance to treat a condition that’s not an emergency or life-threatening. Many different types of procedures for serious health issues can fall into this category—from heart valve surgery to some types of cancer surgery.

In addition to the stress and pain that postponed surgeries can cause, delaying elective surgery has the potential to create a situation where the patient is in poorer condition and at increased risk of complications once the surgery is rescheduled. One study conducted at Mt. Sinai Hospital in 2020 found that postponing transcatheter aortic valve replacement was associated with 10% of those patients having a cardiac event (any incident that damages the heart muscle, for example, a heart attack) during the first month of postponement and 35% of the patients experiencing a cardiac event during the following three months.

If your elective surgery has been postponed, it’s helpful to learn how you can manage your condition, mitigate symptoms, and deal with the stress of waiting until the procedure can be rescheduled. These steps can help you build a strategy that will help you cope as you wait:

  • Find out if there’s another healthcare facility where your surgery can be safely performed sooner. Ask your surgeon if there are other location options for your surgery. If the hospital is part of a larger group of hospitals, one of the other facilities may have more capacity for elective surgeries right now. For some types of procedures, freestanding surgical centers may be another option. These facilities don’t treat people with COVID, so they are less likely to be impacted by the current surge.
  • Ask how to manage your symptoms. Talk with your doctor and ask what steps you can take to minimize pain and whether there are any steps you should take to lower the risk of your condition becoming worse, like stopping certain activities or taking time off work. For example, if your knee replacement surgery is postponed, ask if physical therapy would be appropriate to reduce discomfort and keep you more mobile. If you’re taking prescription medications for your condition, make sure you know how and when to get them refilled.
  • If your symptoms change or get worse, contact your doctor immediately. A change in the type or severity of your symptoms could mean that your surgery would no longer be considered elective and needs to be scheduled right away. Call your doctor if you notice a new symptom, like shortness of breath if you’re awaiting heart surgery or numbness in your leg if you’re waiting to have spinal surgery. You should also talk with your doctor if your symptoms or pain become more intense or frequent.

A health advisor can help you connect with the resources you need to manage symptoms and remain as healthy as possible until your surgery can be rescheduled.