Questions you should ask before elective surgery during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Many states are beginning to reopen, and hospitals are once again scheduling elective surgeries. The question on many patients’ minds is, “Should I undergo elective surgery right now?” Although 31 percent of people have chosen to delay care and 50 percent of people over 65 have decided to wait to receive care during COVID-19, according to a Kaiser Health News roundup, making this decision will depend on each individual’s comfort level with going to a healthcare facility at this point in the pandemic.

In addition, just because a surgery is categorized as elective doesn’t mean it’s not something that you need taken care of sooner rather than later, especially if the problem is causing severe pain, limiting your ability to do your daily activities, or is related to a serious condition like a cancer diagnosis. In fact, elective in this situation does not mean optional. It means that the surgery can be scheduled in advance. Emergency surgery, on the other hand, is performed because of an urgent or immediately life-threatening medical problem or trauma.

To help you make an informed decision about whether to move forward with elective surgery, talk with your doctor and ask these questions to gather more information that will help you gauge potential risks and benefits so you can make an informed decision.

What precautions is the hospital taking to lower the risk of non-COVID-19 patients being exposed to the virus? You’ll want to know if:

  • The hospital tests patients for the virus before they undergo surgery.
  • How frequently they screen physicians, nurses, and staff.
  • If there’s a separate entrance to the facility for non-COVID-19 patients.
  • Whether there’s a dedicated surgery and recovery team and space that is not involved in caring for patients with COVID-19.
  • What infection control protocols the hospital is following (disinfection, use of masks and personal protective equipment, how many people are permitted in the waiting room, etc.).

Does the surgery need to be performed at the hospital, or is there another option? Hospitals have emergency departments, frequent entry points for patients with COVID-19. Ambulatory surgery centers and other outpatient facilities that are not located on a hospital campus do not include emergency departments. While there’s still a risk of exposure to the virus in these settings (as there is in any setting, from the grocery store to curbside takeout pickup), non-hospital care settings should present a substantially lower likelihood of exposure.

Are there non-surgical treatment options I can consider before undergoing elective surgery? For some health issues, you may be able to safely delay elective surgery by first seeking a non-surgical approach to treatment. For example, if you’re living with back pain, ask your physician if physical therapy, which some hospitals now offer in the form of virtual visits, would be an appropriate treatment to try before surgery.

What can I do before and after surgery to lower my risk? Ask your physician what precautions he or she recommends to lower your risk of contracting COVID-19. The physician may recommend quarantining yourself from other family members for a period of time, especially those who are required to leave home to go to work, use public transportation, or those who have contact with people outside the circle of people with whom you live, for example at the grocery store or pharmacy.

Of course, you should still follow the by now familiar steps for lowering your risk of exposure to the virus including frequent, thorough hand washing or the use of hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol when handwashing isn’t possible, practicing physical distancing, and wearing a mask when physical distancing is not possible. Your physician may also recommend some lifestyle changes that may help you get healthier and boost your immune system before surgery such as taking part in regular physical activity, eating a healthy diet, getting an adequate amount of sleep, managing stress, limiting alcohol consumption and quitting smoking.

Miles J. Varn is chief executive officer, PinnacleCare, and can be reached on LinkedIn.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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