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 the United Kingdom, the NHS advised hospitals to cancel most elective surgeries for 12 weeks from mid-April, although many procedures were cancelled before this date. According to the study, this could mean 516,000 cancelled surgeries in the UK during the pandemic, including 36,000 cancer procedures. However, other sources suggest this figure could be even higher, at around 2 million.

Researchers also projected that once activity resumes, even if the number of surgeries performed each week is increased by 20%, compared to pre-pandemic activity, it will take around 11 months to clear the backlog. Each additional week of disruption will lead to the cancellation of an extra 43,300 surgeries, significantly extending the period it will take 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 the NHS will need to upscale its capacity to be able to tackle this challenge and get on top of waiting lists, particularly given that, even though 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’s needed the most.

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