The new normal: Surgical procedures post-COVID-19

As the country works to combat a global pandemic, COVID-19 has brought many sweeping changes to American society. Workplaces have shifted to remote conferencing for meetings, restaurants are boarded up or acting in a delivery-only capacity and retail sales are on a steep decline. 

The changes are stark even — or especially so — on the healthcare front, where average patient volume at hospitals with more than 100 beds has declined by 56% since March 1st. Furthermore, a TransUnion Healthcare poll found that about 27% of patients have had an elective surgery, appointment or procedure delayed or canceled because of the pandemic. 

Because of these trends, the industry’s woes are compounded by the plight of healthcare workers nationwide with over 200 healthcare facilities furloughing at least some of their staff. And these concerns don’t look to let up any time soon; authorities say it may take up to four months to reschedule surgeries and medical procedures and truly get that patient volume back, bringing jobs and revenue back with it.

Nationwide, most surgeries — a key revenue driver for health systems — have been paused since mid-March. Now, with many states resuming or set to resume elective procedures in the era of COVID-19, there are three main considerations that must be taken into account. 


1. Protect your staff

Consider the risks inherent to providers and staff in refilling your surgical calendar. From exposure to the virus to encountering low supplies of PPE, reintroducing elective surgeries is something that must be carefully weighed against the risks. Luckily, there are many safeguards that can be put into place. 

Protecting your staff (and, subsequently, patients) might mean:

  • Taking the temperatures of patients and staff upon arrival and before procedures
  • Requiring the use of a mask anywhere on the premises
  • Rearranging the waiting area to accommodate physical distancing
  • Establishing hand hygiene stations and wiping down surfaces more often
  • Designating special entrances, waiting rooms or bathrooms to help keep everyone safe
  • Screening patients for COVID-19, whether done in person, or remotely by leveraging technology 

Monitoring the COVID-19 status of healthcare employees via a digital care management solution like GetWell Loop allows healthcare organizations to address the COVID-19 status of an employee at any given time, in addition to giving employees peace of mind while self-isolating or experiencing potential symptoms. 

2. Communicate with patients  

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent pause in elective surgeries has ironically afforded healthcare organizations with some time and space to prepare for what comes next. From acquiring PPE to ensuring office spaces and surgical suite areas are clean and sanitized, many organizations are well prepared to restart surgeries and receive patients — from a quality and safety perspective.

The challenge now, however, is convincing patients of this safety, addressing their fears and helping them understand it’s safe to return. Some estimates put the number of patients willing to come back for elective surgeries and other procedures at around 60% — a sharp drop from pre-COVID days. Others put patient willingness to reschedule at just over 50%. Regardless, these numbers represent a steep decline, and one that’s not going to correct itself until patients believe rescheduling elective surgeries and other procedures won’t put themselves or their loved ones at risk. 

Providers play an important role in providing trusted information to combat the fear, say experts.

“Now, perhaps more than ever, our patients and their families need the right empathetic information at the right time to help mitigate any confusion, anxiety and risk they may be having,” said Genevieve Melton-Meaux, M.D., Ph.D., a professor at M Health Fairview, as quoted in Patient Engagement HIT. “As healthcare providers, we need to communicate in real time to reduce concerns and coordinate care effectively and efficiently during this pandemic.”

In addition to addressing safety and health concerns around the pandemic and the return to pre-COVID surgical volumes, it is incumbent on healthcare providers to determine what patients’ barriers to return are and work to mitigate those. 

Patients may be concerned about issues more potentially solvable by your organization, such as the fear of crowded waiting rooms before a visit or procedure. Many healthcare organizations aren’t getting credit for all the special protocols they are putting in place to minimize person-to-person exposure, and simply communicating these to patients may make them feel comfortable about rescheduling an appointment. 

On the other hand, they may be concerned about issues that are more difficult for the health system to solve, like how they will care for themselves post-procedure when they live alone and when social distancing prevents family from coming to help. 

Even during a pandemic, when many things seem off kilter and out of the norm, remember these very real concerns that may be keeping patients from rescheduling. Help them understand the risks of continuing to defer treatment, and act as a trusted source of information to help put their minds at ease.

3. Stay nimble

Agility — for health systems, patients and providers alike — remains a key skill in this situation. The COVID-19 pandemic is not predicted to be a singular event, but rather one that demands ongoing agility as the globe faces an indeterminate number of outbreak waves.

“The most crucial skill set for us right now is the ability to stay agile, because everything is changing so frequently,” says Natalie Mortensen, Manager at Inception Health, a digital technology innovation partner of Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin. “You need to be an outside-of-the-box thinker on this one.”

To care for patients and recover the lost revenue that is crucial to allowing future care, hospitals and health systems must maximize windows of surgical opportunity, rapidly ramping up elective surgeries when outbreaks desist and then paring down offerings as new outbreaks erupt. The volatility in service that can be offered at any given time means that organizations need to have ways to be in continuous contact with their patients to keep them abreast of changes. 

Determining how to prioritize procedural volume before, during and after outbreaks may be difficult, but a tool like GetWell Loop can help you reach out to all patients to assess readiness. And, in a time when there’s a great deal in flux, digital care management can also help you maximize efficiency by ensuring patients are prepared, on time for surgery and supported through recovery.

The bottom line

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many changes to healthcare, and providers and health systems will need to remain flexible for an indeterminate amount of time. By protecting staff, communicating with patients and working hard to remain agile in tough times, healthcare organizations will be better positioned to assuage fears, care for patients and rebuild revenue despite widespread global unease.