A Red Deer orthopedic surgeon went from regularly performing six scheduled surgeries per week to only two surgeries in a 75-day stretch during the fourth COVID-19 wave.
“That’s the sort of significant restriction that our patients have been facing. It’s disheartening for sure,” said Dr. Keith Wolstenholme.
In the last few weeks some patients were even willing to venture outside the public health care system for their elective surgery, he said.
“Three or four patients have asked me if I would recommend surgery in a private facility, whether it be in Edmonton or down in the U.S., because they can’t stand the thought of waiting to have their scheduled surgery here.”
He said the elective surgery wait list must be in the hundreds by now.
“We’ll never dig out of the backlog.”
He said Red Deer is now back to running at about 60 to 65 per cent normal capacity, but the system was maxed out even before the pandemic.
“Now we’re even worse off because we have a human resources crisis as well with not enough nurses, not enough anesthesiologists. We have no ability to get back to what we used to be, let alone try to be more productive and do more cases.”
He said patients were already being sent to Edmonton and Calgary for surgeries, and now those cities will be facing similar backlogs. Smaller central Alberta hospitals may be able to do more surgeries, but a large percentage of patients need a higher level of care, or require the equipment at Red Deer hospital.
“We’ve kind of already maxed out the types of patients and the volume of patients that can be safely done in other centres. What we’re left with is a huge swath of patients that can only have their surgery in Red Deer.”
He said Red Deer does not have private charter surgical facilities, nor is that a solution for Red Deer which really needs the will of the government to invest in health care, and a significant, rapid increase in physical infrastructure and human resources.
“COVID was the primary driver for the last two months as to why we were doing so little scheduled surgery. But to be honest our limitations moving forward are what they always used to be, lack of physical capacity in ORs and beds, but there’s also this new crisis in human resources,” Wolstenholme said.
Health Minister Jason Copping said on Wednesday that every week hundreds of Albertans are not getting the surgeries they need but the AHS is restoring surgeries “as fast as they can.”
Surgeries are now at two-thirds of their normal levels and climbing “and I expect the situation will continue to improve,” he said during the government’s COVID-19 update.
Copping said as surgery capacity recovers, priority is being given to the sickest, including surgeries for cancer patients, which have fully resumed.
“No more cancer surgeries are being postponed due to COVID-related capacity restraints.”
His department is working with AHS to have surgeries restored to 100 per cent capacity and then beyond to whittle down the backlog.
An update on the surgery wait list at Red Deer’s hospital was unavailable from Alberta Health Services on Wednesday.
In early September, Alberta Health Services announced that scheduled surgeries and procedures were being postponed across the province to free up hospital space for patients who need a higher level of care, and support redeployment of frontline staff and resources to areas of greatest need.
In the Central Zone, up to 40 per cent of endoscopy procedures, and up to 30 per cent of scheduled surgeries, were postponed.