What is Elective Surgery, and Why Is It Off-Limits Right Now?

In the world of surgical procedures, there are two modes: emergency and elective. By definition, emergency surgeries are those that must happen now, or at the very least sometime in the next 8 hours. Elective surgeries are procedures that should happen at some point, but do not have a similarly urgent timeline. While there are still timelines for many of these elective surgeries, they are often movable and imprecise.

In the current COVID-19 climate, all medical resources are critical. Ventilators, hospital beds, nurses, surgeons, and supplies all require conservation and redirection in order to properly address the current crisis. What’s more, every patient who undergoes a major surgical procedure that then requires a hospital stay (whether planned or not) will use a significant amount of all of those resources, at a time when they could be used to save someone critically ill. Desperate times call for prioritization.

This concept is relatively easy to understand in the scope of cosmetic surgery; but it is harder to grasp why knee replacements and hernia repairs have also been temporarily ruled out. The fact is that all of those procedures use resources that cannot be spared until there is a clearer view of what this extreme situation demands. With regard to cancer surgeries, this may seem almost extreme- how can a cancer operation be indefinitely delayed? The short answer is that the delay is not intended to be indefinite, and decisions are being made in real time as to what can and cannot wait.

The magnitude of this situation cannot be understated, and its effects reach all people and all activities. But it is at times like these that we can be our best selves, and exercise both our optimism and our patience. Whether or not everything is on hold, communication need not be. We may not be able to schedule a procedure for tomorrow, but we can discuss it, prepare for it, plan it, and support each other through the uncertainty of timing. And when the rooms open up, it will be a tremendous relief that we can go back to business; but more importantly, it will also be proof that things have improved enough that all of those resources are no longer needed in the eye of the storm. It is then that we will begin to feel the ease of things, and enjoy the strength that we built in the meantime while partnering from a distance.

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