Restarting elective procedures during the COVID-19 pandemic: getting routine care back on track
Estimated reading time: 4-6 minutes
As COVID-19 sweeps across the globe, healthcare providers have geared up to care for an overwhelming tsunami of patients suffering from the disease, suspending their normal operations, including most non-urgent care. But thanks largely to dramatic quarantine measures taken by governments and societies, in most countries the number of patients has so far peaked at manageable levels. Now, while lockdown measures continue to be eased in many parts of the world, physicians face an urgent task to restart elective procedures and to get their own operations back to financial health.
Atul Gupta, Chief Medical Officer for Philips’ Image Guided Therapy businesses and a practicing interventional radiologist, has been continuing to provide patient care during the pandemic while also witnessing its broader impact on health providers. In this first part of a two-part interview he discusses the impact of the pandemic on patients and healthcare works, and the strong focus on safety and restoring patient confidence.
Q: What has been the impact of the pandemic on patients and healthcare workers?
Atul Gupta: Those most directly impacted are of course the patients suffering severe symptoms from COVID-19. But there’s also a huge number of patients who were due to be treated but had their ‘elective’ procedure postponed. Some of them are cancer patients whose tumors are growing every day. Others have coronary arteries that are slowly narrowing. Elective doesn’t mean optional, and the additional time these patients have had to wait has caused a huge amount of stress for them and their loved ones, with delayed treatment potentially resulting in worse disease outcomes.
We’ve also seen a big drop in Emergency Department visits and other access of health services. It’s not that those patients aren’t experiencing chronic or acute medical issues – they are – but they’re making the decision not to seek medical care due to the pandemic. In nine months to a year, those patients will be coming through our doors, and many will have diseases that could be treated now but that will be either much more difficult to treat or won’t be treatable at all by that time.
When it comes to healthcare workers, even before the pandemic, we were facing an epidemic of burnout in the industry, with increasing pressure at work driven by rising rates of chronic disease, an aging population and a shortage of specialist skills. The effect of the pandemic has been mixed. Some staff are under more pressure than ever. Conversely, with some departments at a virtual standstill, others have found themselves furloughed or even laid off. However, I remain optimistic. Shining through have been the many, many examples of healthcare workers going above and beyond to care for their patients in a time of crisis. We’ve also seen broader recognition from the general public of the vital role that the healthcare community is playing in battling the pandemic.
Q: With lockdown measures easing in many countries, how are healthcare providers helping to give patients the confidence to move ahead with their elective procedures?
AG: There is widespread recognition that reopening our hospitals is only half of the equation: patients also need to feel confident enough to walk through the door. Healthcare providers can play an important role here, with a recent study by Boston Consulting Group finding that providers can influence up to about 50% of the conditions affecting a patient’s willingness to reschedule. This is vital work – the more patients we can convince to come to hospital and receive timely care, the more we increase our chances of avoiding turning one tragedy into two.
Reopening hospitals is only half of the equation: patients also need to feel confident enough to walk through the door.
Whatever our individual roles and experiences as physicians, all of us have been acutely reminded of our responsibility to preserve patient and staff safety. Already hospitals are taking great care to physically segregate COVID and non-COVID patients with thorough triaging. Asian countries like Singapore were relatively well-prepared based on their experiences during the 2003 SARS outbreak, with hospitals renovated to set up interventional departments on nearby yet separate floors – making it easier to treat infected and non-infected patients separately. Hospitals in the West are now also going to great lengths to avoid cross-contamination. Looking forward, faster and more effective testing should further improve healthcare providers’ ability to efficiently triage COVID-19 patients and limit infection risk.
The second part of this two-part interview will be published next week.