About 40 people needed emergency surgery in Red Deer on Thursday. (File photo by Advocate staff)

About 40 people needed emergency surgery in Red Deer on Thursday. (File photo by Advocate staff)

Red Deer still playing surgery catch up

Stats show 68 per cent fewer surgeries performed in Alberta at the start of the pandemic

Red Deer is falling farther and farther behind when it comes to surgeries compared to other Alberta communities.

“Our current surgical environment in Red Deer is a disaster,” said orthopedic surgeon Dr. Keith Wolstenholme.

“We’re absolutely not catching up. We’re still only running about 60 per cent capacity at Red Deer hospital.”

He said on Thursday 40 people needed emergency surgery within the next 24 to 48 hours, or less.

“There’s absolutely no physical way we can do that many surgeries in that little amount of time. One of the unfortunate options is you then cancel elective surgeries.”

New data from across Canada shows a whopping 68 per cent fewer surgeries were performed in Alberta at the start of the pandemic, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

But Wolstenholme said a lack of operating room nurses, for a variety of reasons, is currently impacting Red Deer’s surgery capacity — not COVID. That means only five or six out of eight operating rooms will be running in December, January and February.

“We’ve had a lot of nurses leave our OR lately and we’ve been unable to replace them. Right now we’re not even able to replace them with rookies.”

He said without the much needed infrastructure expansion and more ORs, there is also not enough OR time available during the day.

“You’re burning everybody out — your nurses, your anesthesiologists, your surgeons — because you’re asking them to work a lot in the evenings, on weekends, overnight and relatively little in the daytime because we don’t have enough physical space.

“Until we get actual infrastructure expansion, we will forever be unable to care for our patients,” Wolstenholme said.


Statistics from Canadian Institute for Health Information show that in April 2020, when COVID was in Alberta, a total of 8,735 surgeries were completed in the province compared 27,043 the same month in 2019. There were 98 per cent fewer cataract and other lens surgeries, 85 per cent less knee and hip replacement surgeries, 18 per cent fewer cardiac surgeries, and one per cent few cancer surgeries.

In 2019, an average of 25,373 surgeries were performed monthly. Between March 2020 and June 2021, the monthly average dropped to 22,999.

Surgery numbers have fluctuated throughout the pandemic. For example, hip and knee surgery increased 15 per cent in July 2020 compared to the same month in 2019, dropped 16 per cent in January 2021, and increased 12 per cent in June 2021.

Across Canada, hospitals performed 560,000 fewer surgeries since the pandemic began. The largest decline happened during the first COVID-19 wave, while the system was adjusting to accommodate the anticipated large volume of COVID-19 patients.

The biggest decreases were seen in cataract surgeries (an average of 5,900 fewer surgeries performed per month) and hip and knee joint replacements (an average of 2,100 fewer per month).

“Our data shows that lessons learned from the first wave of COVID-19 resulted in fewer cancelled surgeries in the following two waves. There are still many unknowns about the effects of COVID-19 on our health systems and on the health of our population — such as what happened to those who didn’t seek hospital care or to those whose surgeries or diagnostic tests were delayed,” said Kathleen Morris, vice-president, research and analysis with the Canadian Institute for Health Information.


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