Yet another thing the COVID-19 pandemic is upending: surgery and doctor appointments. Here's what to know and what you can do if it happens to you.

By Claire Gillespie
March 17, 2020
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As the coronavirus continues to spread around the world, health services are under increasing pressure to provide care to the critically ill. Unfortunately, this has resulted in non-urgent appointments and surgeries being postponed across the US, based on the recommendations of both the Surgeon General and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

The reasons for this are two-fold: making the best use of medical resources and reducing risk of coronavirus spread, Crystal Riley, a lecturer of health administration at New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, tells Health. 

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“With the growing number of people contracting coronavirus, hospitals are facing a flood of patients, all of whom require beds and health care personnel to care for them," explains Riley." "If a surgery can be pushed back to make room for those more acute patients without causing immediate harm to the patient scheduled for surgery, it makes sense to free up resources to care for the more urgent needs."

“Also, surgical patients can be more susceptible to infections," continues Riley. ?As such, limiting patients to coronavirus exposure by holding off on non-urgent surgical procedures is also prudent.” 

At a time like this, when life isn’t “normal” in any sense of the word, prioritization is crucial, former hospital CEO, health care advisor, and biomedical ethicist Michael Hunn tells Health.

“Physicians understand their ethical obligations and professional oath to provide the care their patients require,” Hunn says. “They are accustomed to prioritizing needs every day, based on need. It’s done every single day throughout the country in every emergency department and trauma unit.” 

When confronted with the extraordinary demands of a pandemic such as COVID-19, the pressure on the medical profession is even greater. “Competent physicians will set aside critical time to be prepared for the most acute patients,” says Hunn. “This means if something is elective, it can wait. Everyone has to be prepared for their health care to be prioritized and rationed accordingly during these unprecedented times.” 

Prioritization makes sense, but where does that leave people who’ve been preparing for surgery or have serious health issues not related to the coronavirus? 

For many patients undergoing elective surgeries such as orthopedic procedures or those who have scheduled surgeries for relatively slow-growing cancers, the thought is that waiting for a bit of time will not adversely impact their outcomes, says Riley. However, it becomes a bit more tricky for patients with more aggressive conditions, where even a few days could impact prognosis. 

What can someone whose surgery is cancelled or postponed do? Patients could try to find alternative providers, but there's no guarantee that their decision to wait would be any different, especially when the number of people impacted by coronavirus is growing daily.

“Having a condition that needs to be fixed and can be fixed, but not at the time they want it to happen, can be incredibly stressful and frightening for patients, particularly if they're not reassured that waiting will not affect their ultimate outcome,” says Riley. “This highlights the importance of communication between health care providers and patients so that they fully understand how waiting for surgery may or may not impact them.”

Hunn agrees that communication between patient and doctor is the most important thing right now. “Find out the plan for the near-long-term continuity of treatment,” he says. ”Don’t be shy to ask—it’s your right.” 

And if you don’t agree with the decisions made by your physician, you have the right to ask your insurance company to review all clinical decisions and the appropriateness of any and all care—whether it’s already been provided or has been postponed. “Typically, patients go to the insurance company website and fill out what’s known as a grievance request,” explains Hunn. 

You also have the right to seek a second opinion and ask your second-opinion physician to consult with your current physician. “No physician should ever take issue with a second opinion,” says Hunn. “Don’t be afraid to get one. It’s your life!” 

Clearly, a great deal of patience is required. And if you can, try to remember the doctors and nurses working tirelessly to care for those who need it the most right now. “Be thankful that your physician is so thoughtful in setting aside critical time to take care of those who will most likely be in critical need—it could ultimately be you,” adds Hunn. 

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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