A new study, published last week in the British Journal of Surgery, has revealed that over 28 million elective surgeries across the globe may be cancelled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, potentially causing a huge backlog.

The CovidSurg Collaborative modelling study projects that 28.4 million elective surgeries will be cancelled or postponed worldwide in 2020, inevitably affecting waiting times for patients. The figure is based on a 12-week period of peak disruption to hospital services due to COVID-19, but the research paper suggests that each additional week of disruption could be associated with a further 2.4 million cancellations.

It is estimated that most cancelled surgeries would be for non-cancer conditions, with orthopaedic procedures thought to be cancelled most frequently. In total, a projected 6.3 million orthopaedic surgeries would be cancelled worldwide over a 12-week period, and a further 2.3 million cancer surgeries are also likely to be cancelled or postponed during this time.

In Australia, the postponement of elective surgery during the pandemic is thought to have created a backlog of almost 400,000 cases, and Canada is in a similar position, with the number of affected surgeries so far also approaching 400,000, according to the study.

Australia has been less severely affected compared to many other countries, and Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, recently announced it was safe to reopen elective surgery activity in a cautious way. After six weeks of being completely restricted, with orthopaedic surgery almost at a standstill, limited elective surgery activity has now resumed, although levels are far from back to normal. Based on the assumption that hospitals increase the number of surgeries performed each week by 20 per cent, compared to pre-pandemic activity, it would take 22 weeks to clear the backlog.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, resources within hospitals have needed to be redistributed, and in many cases operating theatres have been converted into intensive care units or repurposed in other ways to support the wider COVID-19 response. As a result, at some hospitals it is possible that bringing elective surgery activity up to maximum capacity could take some time.

It is inevitable that health service organisations and providers worldwide will need to upscale their capacity to be able to tackle this challenge and get on top of waiting lists, particularly given that, while the number of cases appear to be falling, there will be a need to treat COVID-19 patients in hospitals for some time yet.

Flexible healthcare solutions must form part of this temporary upshift. By bringing in additional operating theatres or endoscopy units, hospitals can substantially increase their capacity at very short notice. Cold sites can also be established, allowing surgery to take place well away from COVID-19 areas of the hospitals. Once the backlog has been cleared, a mobile unit can easily be moved to another site to provide support where it is needed the most.

Q-bital Healthcare Solutions have a number of mobile and modular operating theatres and wards, as well as endoscopy units, available to support hospitals and healthcare providers with reducing the backlog and cutting waiting lists. Get in touch to find out more.