Health and Wellness

It may take up to 4 months to reschedule surgeries and medical procedures

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Helen King

Although it may seem as though every health care worker is on the front lines fighting Covid-19, many medical professionals are at home waiting to get back to work like millions of other Americans.

That's because many hospitals and health systems have suspended elective services and procedures during the shutdown. Over 200 facilities around the country have furloughed at least some of their staff, from nurses and doctors to nonclinical employees. Since the coronavirus was declared a pandemic on March 11, total visits to hospitals nationwide have declined 32% to 60% compared to overall pre-coronavirus volumes, according to an analysis from TransUnion Healthcare of over 500 U.S. hospitals. That's because while some areas like New York and New Jersey experienced a spike in Covid-19 hospitalizations, other areas of the country haven't yet seen a surge. 

About 27% of patients report that they had an elective surgery, appointment or procedure delayed or canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a poll of over 2,500 U.S. adults by TransUnion Healthcare conducted the week of April 13.

It will take a while to get back on track. For those who did have their procedures delayed — whether it be hip replacement, plastic surgery or repairing a knee ligament tear — it will likely take an average of three to four months to resolve the backlog, says Jonathan Wiik, principal of health care strategy at TransUnion.

Now that the number of new hospitalizations and deaths from Covid-19 is starting to drop, health facilities can begin to consider setting up procedures and appointments. "Health care providers — particularly those outside of Covid-19 'hot spot' locations who deferred their elective cases early — are eager to re-start elective procedures to ensure their patients are receiving the required care and recover revenue as soon as possible," Wiik tells CNBC Make It.

"The timing is going to be on the magnitude of months, not weeks, to get in," Wiik adds. Hospitals have cut at least half of their elective procedures for March, April and May, according to Wiik. The number of cancer screenings and tests fell by as much as 68% nationwide from March 19 to April 20, Komodo Health found. That means hospitals and health facilities will face a major backlog on a number of fronts once they reopen for elective procedures.

For surgical patients, it usually takes about a month to get through the process leading up to the surgery itself. Patients typically need to complete pre-op appointments and testing to make sure they're healthy enough to undergo surgery. Due to the backlog and potential ongoing coronavirus treatment, these pre-op procedures may also be delayed, further extending the surgical timeline. 

Once state and local stay-at-home orders are lifted, hospitals that deferred care will likely follow CDC guidelines to start rescheduling elective surgeries and appointments on a first in, first out basis. That means someone who was rescheduled in March will be put on the schedule before someone who tries to book a procedure now, taking into consideration the acuteness of their need, Wiik says. 

Patients who had already started their pre-op appointment and lab work regimen can also expect to restart that process. For the most part, patients will be billed for each appointment and test, whether the surgery takes place or not. That means the overall cost of their surgery may be slightly higher than they initially expected since many patients will have to go through all or part of those pre-op steps twice.

Of course, that's assuming patients even want to reschedule right away. Of the patients who had an elective procedure deferred, almost half say they will only reschedule if they think it's safe and doesn't put them at a higher risk of contracting Covid-19, TransUnion Healthcare's survey found.

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