Omicron and staffing constraints pushed hospitals and health systems to once again suspend nonurgent, elective procedures — a move that hurts patients and their care teams.
Physicians told The Washington Post that notifying patients of their surgeries being postponed is one of the most difficult things they do during the pandemic, and the idea of prolonging patients’ suffering is anguishing. In interviews, a patient rated the pain he felt from a ruptured cervical disk — for which his surgery has been indefinitely postponed at Mercy Health-St. Rita’s Medical Center in Lima, Ohio — as a 12 out of 10.
In addition to extended pain, pushed back surgeries leave more time for disease advancement. Certain cancers can advance to later stages in four to eight weeks, for instance. Even procedures considered low acuity, such as joint replacements or bariatric cases, will have material implications from delays through reduced activity, mobility and quality of life for patients. Delays in surgery have also been shown to result in higher rates of surgical site infections.
“I’d say it’s a bona fide mess right now,” Kenneth Kaufman, chair and founding partner of Kaufman Hall, told The Washington Post. “We seem to be back to square one. Omicron has significantly compounded staffing shortages in a very profound way.”
Hospitals hit pause on surgeries over the last several weeks as growing COVID-19 inpatient volumes were compounded by omicron sidelining healthcare professionals infected with the virus. Vaccinated healthcare professionals experienced mild breakthrough cases that temporarily took them out of the workforce.
Cleveland Clinic has extended its postponement of elective surgeries four times over the past month as thousands of employees were sidelined from COVID-19 infection. Hospitals in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Washington and Virginia are among those that have either moved back surgeries or complied with government officials’ requests to do so in January.
Healthcare professionals have taken issue with the industry term “elective,” which does not describe the acuity of the medical condition or necessity of the procedure. Rather, the use of “elective” distinguishes these surgeries that are scheduled in advance from emergency surgeries, such as trauma cases.
University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake Citypostponed about 20 percent of its surgeries when at least 500 clinical and nonclinical employees were out sick or isolating from COVID-19 at the start of the month.
“Around Christmastime and the week after Christmas, we didn’t have to reschedule any operations for a period of three weeks, until January 1. Then the wheels came off,” Robert E. Glasgow, MD, interim chair of the hospital’s surgery department, told The Washington Post.
On Jan. 14, the physicians at the hospital learned they could accommodate six additional surgery cases Jan. 18, leaving them in a mad dash to identify priority patients and determine who could present for surgery with less than four days’ notice.
“How can we find six cases that are most in need and are most able to come?” said Dr. Glasgow said.
Access to healthcare in childhood has long term effects on health outcomes, but many children in the US are either uninsured or underinsured, meaning they often don’t have access to the care they need. Why is that and what can we do about it?
The incredibly contagious new coronavirus variant is sidelining healthcare workers with breakthrough infections and quarantines, as patients flood into hospitals across the country. While hospitals are reporting that most infected patients are less sick, the sheer number of patients is pushing an already stressed system into crisis.
The Gist: Given mounting evidence that Omicron is both causing less severe disease and evading vaccines, health systems will need tobalance employee COVID testing and quarantine protocols against the constraints caused by mounting numbers of otherwise asymptomatic care workers out sick. As COVID becomes endemic, health systems must find a way to normalize operations even as they manage employee infections. It won’t be sustainable to continually revert to canceling non-emergent procedures (many of which carry clinical consequences to patients if they are delayed) and shifting to crisis standards of care.
While Omicron’s rapid spread is causing COVID hospitalizations to surge once again, the impact on consumer confidence may be different this time around. Drawing on the most recent data from analytics firm Strata Decision Technology, the graphic above shows how hospital volumes have fluctuated throughout the pandemic. Hospital volumes mostly returned to pre-COVID levels early last summer, until the Delta surge caused patients to begin avoiding care across all settings once again.
It remains to be seen if the forty percent of consumers who said they were less likely to seek non-emergency care during the Delta surge feel similarly about the Omicron spike. So far, consumer sentiment seems to be holding steady at last summer’s levels, though we’re still a few weeks away from Omicron’s expected peak.
As the pandemic enters its third year, it’s also likely that consumers who have been delaying care will simply be unwilling or unable to hold off any longer. But even if Omicron doesn’t dissuade consumers from seeking non-COVID care, health systems will be hard pressed to accommodate both COVID and non-COVID care amid worrisome staffing shortages.
Scripps Health is temporarily postponing some medical procedures because of significant staffing shortages and a jump in COVID-19 cases, the San Diego, Calif.-based system said Aug. 20, according to CBS News 8.
Medical staff is deciding which procedures to delay based on clinical factors and emergency status, with time-sensitive care still being delivered, Scripps leaders said.
The health system said it is also considering temporarily consolidating some ambulatory care sites due to workforce shortages.
At present, Scripps said it is looking to fill 1,309 open positions. In August 2019, the system had just 832 openings. About 430 of the openings are for nursing positions, up from 220 open positions in 2019, according to the report.
At the same time, the health system is seeing its COVID-19 patient volume grow. Scripps has 173 patients admitted at its five hospitals, up from 13 patients on June 13.
“The COVID pandemic has taken a serious toll on healthcare workers across the nation, and many have decided to leave the field entirely for reasons such as fatigue and burnout,” said Scripps’ President and CEO Chris Van Gorder, according to CBS News 8. “We’re doing all we can to fill open positions and shifts, but options are currently limited across the board in healthcare, so we’re doing what’s necessary to ensure we have staff available for our most urgent cases.”
We’ve been hearing a growing number of stories from patients about difficulties scheduling appointments for specialist consults.
A friend’s 8-year-old son experienced a new-onset seizure and was told that the earliest she could schedule a new patient appointment with a pediatric neurologist at the local children’s hospital was the end of November. Concerned about a five-month wait time after the scary episode, she asked what she should do in the meantime: “They told me if I want him to be seen sooner, bring him to the ED at the hospital if it happens again.”
A colleague shared his frustration after his PCP advised him to see a gastroenterologist. Calling six practices on the recommended referral list, the earliest appointment he could find was nine weeks out; the scheduler at one practice noted that with everyone now scheduling colonoscopies and other procedures postponed during the pandemic, they are busier than they’ve been in years. Recent conversations with medical group leaders confirm a specialist access crunch.
Patients who delayed care last year are reemerging, and ones who were seen by telemedicine now want to come in person. “We are booked solid in almost every specialty, with wait times double what they were before COVID,” one medical group president shared. The spike in demand is compounded by staffing challenges: “I pray every day that another one of our nurses doesn’t quit, because it will take us months to replace them.”
Doctors and hospitals are now seeing a rise in acuity—cancers diagnosed at a more advanced stage, chronic disease patients presenting with more severe complications—due to care delayed by the pandemic. If patients can’t schedule needed appointments and procedures, this spike in severity could be prolonged, or even made worse.
For medical groups who can find ways to open additional access, it’s also an opportunity to capture new business and engender greater patient loyalty.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, experts have been warning of the dangers of postponed health care services. In January, the American Cancer Society, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, and 73 other organizations, including many major health care systems, issued a statement stressing the urgency of preventive care. “We urge people across the country to talk with their health care provider to resume regular primary care checkups, recommended cancer screening, and evidence-based cancer treatment (PDF) to lessen the negative impact the pandemic is having on identifying and treating people with cancer,” the groups said.
That was sound advice not everyone could follow, as ProPublica’s Duaa Eldeib reported last week in a tragic story about Teresa Ruvalcaba. The 48-year-old single mother of three worked for 22 years at a candy factory on Chicago’s West Side. During the pandemic, disaster struck. “For more than six months, the 48-year-old factory worker had tried to ignore the pain and inflammation in her chest. She was afraid of visiting a doctor during the pandemic, afraid of missing work, afraid of losing her job, her home, her ability to take care of her three children,” Eldeib reported.
“Even though her chest felt as if it was on fire, she kept working. She didn’t want to get COVID-19 at a doctor’s office or the emergency room, and she was so busy she didn’t have much time to think about her symptoms,” Eldeib wrote.
Ruvalcaba’s pandemic fears were typical of patients across the nation, surveys revealed. A 2020 CHCF poll of 2,249 California adults revealed that even when people wanted to see a doctor for an urgent health problem, one-third did not receive care. Nearly half of those surveyed didn’t receive care for their nonurgent health problems.
Nationally, more than one in three people delayed or skipped care because they were worried about exposure to Covid-19, or because their doctor limited services, according to an Urban Institute analysis of a September 2020 survey.
The toll of this disruption in care — the forgone cancer screening, the chest pain that isn’t reported — will devastate some patients and families. Ruvalcaba had to face a diagnosis with a terrible prognosis, inflammatory breast cancer. “If she would have come six months earlier, it could have been just surgery, chemo and done,” Ruvalcaba’s doctor told Eldeib. “Now she’s incurable.”
“Unfortunately, we know we’re going to see some tragedies related to the delays,” Wiley Fowler, an oncologist at Dignity Health in Sacramento, told Ibarra.
Consequences of Delayed Care
Public health messages early in the pandemic urged people to avoid public places, including doctor’s offices. In April, as Hayley Smith noted in a Los Angeles Times story, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services “both published guidelines recommending the postponement of elective and nonurgent procedures, including ‘low-risk cancer’ screenings, amid the first wave of the pandemic.”
Patients and doctors listened. Appointments were canceled. “Nonurgent” procedures encompassing a wide array of treatments and operations, including cancer surgeries, were delayed.
Preventive cancer screenings dropped 94% over the first four months of 2020, Eldeib reported. The National Cancer Institute expects to see 10,000 preventable deaths over the next decade because of pandemic-related delays in diagnosis and treatment of breast and colorectal cancer. Screenings for these cancers, which account for about one in six cancer deaths, are routine features of preventive care.
I know I should get another check soon, but the anxiety of COVID feels like more of a priority than the anxiety of cervical cancer.
—Molly Codner, a Southern Californian who received an abnormal Pap smear last summer
In California, cancer deaths have remained roughly the same as prepandemic rates, but that stability is not expected to last. Based on the National Cancer Institute data, Ibarra calculates that an additional 1,200 Californians will die from breast and colon cancer. The National Cancer Institute estimate is conservative “because it only accounts for a six-month delay in care, and people are postponing care longer than that,” Ibarra reported.
Nationally, death rates from cancer are expected to increase in a year or two. Slow-growing cancers will remain treatable despite a delayed diagnosis, Norman Sharpless, MD, director of the National Cancer Institute, told Eldeib. Yet for conditions like Ruvalcaba’s inflammatory breast cancer, delayed care can be disastrous.
Women, People of Color Disproportionately Affected
For women across Southern California, appointments have been delayed, exams canceled, and screenings postponed during the pandemic, Smith reported in the Los Angeles Times. “Some are voluntarily opting out for fear of encountering the virus,” Smith wrote, “while others have had their appointments canceled by health care providers rerouting resources to COVID-19 patients.”
Before Pap smears became part of routine American health care, cervical cancer was one of the deadliest cancers for women. Today, as many as 93% of cervical cancer cases are preventable, according to the CDC, and screenings are a crucial component of preventive care. Yet during the first phase of California’s stay-at-home orders, cervical cancer screenings dropped 80% among the 1.5 million women in Kaiser Permanente’s regional network, Smith wrote.
The effects of the pandemic shutdown extended beyond delayed Pap smears. Women who spoke to Smith said that “mammograms, fertility treatments and even pain prevention procedures have been waylaid by the pandemic.”
Sometimes, obstacles other than the pandemic are continuing to interfere with access to care. One woman had an appointment delayed and then lost her job and her health insurance, Smith reported.
“Molly Codner, 30, has needed a checkup ever since she received an abnormal Pap smear last summer,” Smith wrote, “but like many Southern Californians, the trauma of the last year still weighs heavily on her mind: Nearly a dozen people she knows have had COVID-19.” Codner told Smith that “I know I should get another check soon, but the anxiety of COVID feels like more of a priority than the anxiety of cervical cancer.”
People who face disparities in treatment and care are most likely to be hard hit by pandemic delays. That includes Black people, who were already more likely to die from cancer than any other racial group. Cancer also is the leading cause of death among Latinx people. Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosis for Latinx women. Overall, more Americans die of heart disease.
Black adults are more likely than White or Latinx adults to delay or forgo care, according to researchers from the Urban Institute.
Telehealth Solved Access Issues for Some, Not All
Telehealth was a boon for patients during the pandemic year. Yet, as Ibarra notes, “there’s only so much that doctors and nurses can do through a screen.” Dental visits, mammograms, and annual wellness checks were also put on hold by the pandemic.
Latinx, Asian, and Black respondents did not use telehealth as often as White respondents. USC researchers attribute these differences to “disparities in income, education and access to any kind of health care.”
Researchers at the Urban Institute report similar findings: “Black and Latinx adults were more likely than White adults to report having wanted a telehealth visit but not receiving one since the pandemic began, and that difficulties getting a telehealth visit were also more common among adults who were in poorer health or had chronic health conditions.”
After controlling for socioeconomic factors and health status, patients with limited English were half as likely to use telehealth compared to fluent English-speaking patients, the Urban Institute said. “Much work remains to ensure all patients have equitable access to remote care during and after the pandemic,” the researchers wrote.
Whether telehealth is conducted by video or phone may be crucial to ensuring access to care. A study of telehealth use at Federally Qualified Health Centers in California in 2020 found that “more primary care visits among health centers in the study occurred via audio-only visits (49%) than in-person (48%) or via video (3%). Audio-only visits comprised more than 90% of all telemedicine visits.”
Public health efforts might need to focus on two goals at the same time as the US recovers from the pandemic: increasing vaccine uptake to keep COVID-19 in check and proactively managing the fallout from delayed care.
“As we focus on recovery, we have to ensure that we get vaccinated,” Efrain Talamantes, a primary care physician in East Los Angeles, told Ibarra. “But also that we have a concerted effort to manage the chronic diseases that haven’t received the attention required to avoid complications.”