Is elective surgery safe during the pandemic?

July 7, 2020 in Disease Management  •  By Miles Varn, MD
elective surgery

As states begin to reopen, hospitals are starting to schedule elective surgeries that have been postponed because of the pandemic. But many people wonder if now is the time to undergo elective surgery. While 31% of people have chosen to delay care and 50% of people over 65 have decided to wait to receive care during COVID-19 according to Kaiser Health News, deciding whether you’re ready to schedule elective surgery right now will depend on how comfortable you feel going to a healthcare facility at this point in the pandemic.

It’s also important to understand that just because a surgery is categorized as elective doesn’t mean it’s not something that you need taken care of sooner rather than later, especially if the problem is causing severe pain, limiting your ability to take part in your daily activities, or is related to a serious condition like a cancer diagnosis. Elective doesn’t mean optional when referring to surgical treatment. It means the surgery can be scheduled in advance. Emergency surgery, on the other hand, is performed right away because of an urgent or life-threatening medical problem or trauma like a car accident.

How to make an informed decision about elective surgery

The first step in deciding to move forward with elective surgery should be to talk with your doctor about your concerns. These questions will help you gather more information that will help you gauge potential risks and benefits so you can make an informed decision that you’re comfortable with:

  • What is the hospital doing to lower the risk of patients being exposed to COVID-19? You’ll want to ask if:
    • Patients are required to be screened for the virus before they undergo surgery
    • How frequently the hospital screens physicians, nurses, and staff
    • Whether there’s a separate hospital entrance for non-COVID-19 patients
    • If there’s a dedicated surgery and recovery team and space that is not used to care for patients with the virus
    • What infection control practices the hospital is following (disinfection, use of masks and personal protective equipment, limiting the number of people in the waiting room, etc.).
  • Does my surgery need to be performed at the hospital? Hospitals have emergency departments, which is a key entry point for COVID-19 patients. Ambulatory surgery centers and other outpatient facilities that are not on a hospital campus do not include emergency departments. While there’s still a risk of exposure to the virus in an outpatient care setting (as there is in any setting, from the grocery store to curbside takeout pickup), non-hospital care settings should offer a substantially lower likelihood of exposure.
  • Are there non-surgical treatments I can safely try first? You may be able to safely delay elective surgery by first trying a non-surgical treatment. For example, if you’re living with back or knee pain, ask if physical therapy, which some hospitals now even offer as virtual visits, would be an appropriate treatment to try before surgery.
  • What steps should I take before and after surgery to lower my risk? Ask what precautions your physician recommends to lower your risk of contracting COVID-19. Your doctor may suggest quarantining yourself from other family members for a period of time, especially those who are working outside the home, use public transportation, or have contact with people outside the circle of people with whom you live. You should also follow the now familiar steps for lowering your risk of exposure to the virus including frequent, thorough hand washing or the use of hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol, practicing physical distancing, and wearing a mask when physical distancing isn’t possible. Your doctor may also recommend lifestyle changes to help you get healthier and boost your immune system, such as regular physical activity, eating a healthy diet, getting an adequate amount of sleep, managing stress, limiting alcohol consumption, and quitting smoking.
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