What to do when elective surgery is postponed


Each time a wave of COVID-19 engulfs a community, overwhelmed hospitals wind up postponing elective surgeries. The schedule changes are needed to make room for COVID patients, allow all hands on deck for crisis care, and shield people in the community from unnecessary COVID exposure. This scenario may grow worse if the flu season isn’t mild this year –– a good reason to get that flu shot!

Postponement of an elective surgery is upsetting, and automatically presents you with two dilemmas:

  • You’ll have to cope with your ailment while you wait for the all-clear.
  • You’ll have to be prepared for your surgery when you get the call that’s it’s back on.

Read on for steps you can take to cope with both situations.

First, what’s considered elective surgery?

All surgical procedures involve cutting skin and tissue using a variety of tools and techniques. But unlike heart surgery done in response to blocked arteries, elective surgery is not an emergency. It’s a procedure that can be safely scheduled in advance. That’s not to say it isn’t important.

An elective surgery could be

  • major, such as a hip or knee replacement, or surgery to repair a prolapsed (fallen) uterus
  • minor, such as surgery to relieve carpal tunnel syndrome (an entrapped nerve in the wrist), or surgery to remove a cataract (cloudy lens) in the eye.

The determination of whether surgery is elective isn’t always clear-cut. Sometimes it depends on your health circumstances. For example, surgery to replace a heart valve might or might not be an emergency, depending on the person’s condition.

Coping while you wait for elective surgery

Waiting for your surgery has potential consequences. Maybe you won’t be able to work, or maybe your condition, pain, or anxiety about the situation — or all three — will get worse.

While you’re in limbo, here are four steps you can take:

  • Keep lines of communication open with your health care providers. That could mean having important phone numbers for your physician on hand, or logging onto your patient portal and emailing your doctor or nurse. Ask your doctor how often you should check in. 
  • Report changes in symptoms. When you scheduled your surgery, your condition wasn’t life-threatening. But things can change. Don’t wait until you experience an emergency; report symptom changes as soon as you notice them.
  • Get prescriptions refilled. You don’t want to be without medications when you need them, especially if you’ll need your doctor to sign off on refills.
  • Arrange for additional help. Perhaps a friend or family member can assist you with grocery shopping, meal preparation, housekeeping, or getting through daily activities. If you can afford it, consider hiring someone to assist you temporarily. Prices average about $25 per hour in the US, with a minimum of several hours per week.

When surgery is back on schedule

Eventually, you’ll get the call that your surgery is a go. That doesn’t mean it will occur soon. Most likely there will be a backlog of postponed surgeries, which may add more time to your wait. Prepare for the possibility that you’ll need to extend the arrangements that have been getting you through your waiting period.

It’s equally wise to prepare for the chance that your surgery will happen with little notice. Alert friends, family members, or your private-duty care agency about this possibility, so they can arrange to jump in to help when you need them.

And make sure you have the answers to these questions ready well in advance:

  • How will you get to and from surgery? (Will you count on a friend, a ride service, or a hired health aide?) 
  • How will you obtain medications prescribed after surgery?
  • Which equipment (if any) will you need after your surgery? For example, if you’re going to have a joint replacement, you’ll need a walker and shower chair afterward. See if you can arrange to get it now, so you’ll have it ready.

It may not be easy dealing with your condition until your surgery takes place, but at least you’ll have both a plan A and a plan B. That preparation may give you a little peace of mind and a feeling of some control over your situation.