Undergoing surgery during the COVID-19 pandemic makes some people feel uneasy but doctors say it’s safe and it’s important not to neglect medical needs.
Dr. Clark Gerhart, a general surgeon at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital, said delaying surgery because of fear of catching or spreading COVID-19 can allow someone’s condition to deteriorate, making the surgery more difficult with a higher risk of complications.
“A patient who becomes more ill due to delayed care can have longer hospital stays and higher costs,” he said.
Gerhart said patients have postponed all kinds of procedures during the pandemic including following up on mammograms, which can help find breast cancer at an early stage. People also have been late in scheduling colonoscopies, which can help prevent cancer from even starting, he said.
“There have been some people with cancer who didn’t follow up and ended up doing it later. It’s disturbing,” Gerhart said during a recent interview at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital following a surgery. “If you have cancer, it could progress. If you miss a screening like a mammogram or a colonoscopy, you could then miss a cancer.”
By delaying elective surgeries, Gerhart said other diseases and medical issues like hernias also could worsen and patients may need to have emergency surgery.
Dr. Alfred Casale, chief medical officer of surgical services for Geisinger, said people were especially hesitant about coming to hospitals during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring because there were so many unknown factors and no vaccines.
As a result, he said doctors cut back on non-urgent and elective surgeries and procedures at that time.
“At the peak of the first wave last March, we reduced operations by about 63%,” he said.
As the number of COVID-19 cases declined last summer, doctors resumed surgeries and procedures and exceeded volumes, he said.
When a second wave hit and reached a peak after Christmas, he said doctors reduced the volume of operations by about 35%.
“When we started testing all patients who were coming into the hospital for operations, there was a much increased confidence,” Casale said. “We started to stress the fact that hospitals and clinics are actually among the safest places to be because of our meticulous cleaning as well as the very strict rules about masking and PPE.”
Safety precautions at hospitals and medical facilities
Many steps have been taken at Commonwealth Health and Geisinger hospitals and medical facilities to keep patients safe.
All Commonwealth Health facilities have precautions in place to treat patients who need medical care, Gerhart said.
Visitors at Commonwealth Health facilities are screened for COVID-19 exposure and symptoms before they are allowed to enter.
With COVID-19 testing in place, Gerhart said they know who has the virus in the hospital.
Pre-surgery COVID-19 testing is required for patients undergoing procedures involving general anesthesia. Care for surgery patients is delivered in areas where all patients have tested negative for COVID-19 and provided by staff who only work in this area.
“You are better off here where we know where COVID is,” Gerhart said. “For elective surgeries, we explain they are going to be in a completely separate part of the building.”
For all outpatient procedures and surgery, Commonwealth Health’s visitation policy now allows one person to accompany each patient.
Restrictions are placed on the number of visitors in Commonwealth Health facilities to reduce the amount of people inside to enable social distancing and keep patients and employees safe.
Everyone inside the hospital, including patients, employees and physicians, wear masks and furniture in waiting areas is arranged to support social distancing.
Caregivers use personal protective equipment and wash their hands before and after caring for every patient.
Cleaning protocols have been enhanced with extra measures and increased frequency including disinfecting frequently touched surfaces and all patient care areas.
Dr. Michelle Im, who specializes in family medicine at Commonwealth Health Physician Network in Shavertown, said many other options also are available for patient care including telehealth appointments.
“I know some people are afraid to seek medical care right now but when it comes to keeping your family healthy, visits with a healthcare provider are key,” Im said. “And if you or a loved one is sick, seeing a healthcare provider is even more important.”
Casale said Geisinger limits visitors, everyone wears masks and personal protective equipment and staff and patients coming in for procedures are tested for COVID-19.
“We’re cleaning everything like crazy,” he said.