Professor Paul Myles, director of anaesthesia and perioperative medicine at The Alfred Hospital, said the ear, nose and throat procedures blew-out because there was a higher risk of COVID-19 transmission and complication.
“If a patient was carrying the virus, even if they were asymptomatic, they pose a great risk of infecting hospital staff, but also they themselves are at risk if they got infection just before or just after surgery, it would be quite nasty,” he said.
Varicose vein surgery is typically undertaken in older patients, who were at heightened risk of complications, and could generally be delayed for a few months safely, he said.
Easing restrictions around the country has meant elective surgeries and cancer screening has picked back up, but Dr Webster said it was unclear whether the activity has gone back up enough to clear whatever backlog might have been created.
“There were around 70,000 less admissions from elective surgery waiting lists than in the previous year,” he said. “[That’s] the kind of scale of potential backlog of elective surgery activity that we’re now trying to work through across the system.”
Some of the health areas affected by the pandemic
- There has been a “notable rise” in the use of crisis lines and mental health services. In the four weeks to September 6, calls, web chats and emails to Beyond Blue were up 38.6 per cent.
- Prescriptions rose 23.1 per cent in March. The rise was greatest for respiratory conditions including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
- Mental health services increased throughout the year. In September the number of services was 15 per cent higher compared to the previous year, and mental health prescriptions rose 5.9 per cent.
- The use of telehealth increased. In April, 36 per cent of general practice consultations were conducted over the phone of via video conferencing.
- More than 70,000 breast cancer screening mammograms were conducted in March 2020. In April, following lockdowns, that number fell to just over 1100.
Emerging research suggests the pandemic will delay elective surgeries across the world by nine months. But Professor Myles predicts the backlog for surgeries in Australia will be substantially fewer months.
The Monash University Professor led a national taskforce screening surgery patients for coronavirus to determine if it was safe to recommence surgeries in Australia. More than 3000 Australians were screened in June and July before their surgeries with only three testing positive to the virus.
A further study across eight Victorian hospitals, including in COVID-19 hotspots suburbs in Melbourne’s north and west, screened more almost 5000 patients before surgery at the height of the second wave with only four patients returning a positive test.
“There are no guarantees for the future, but at this stage because of the data we’ve collected it tells us we can safely continue all elective surgery right now,” he said.
“Even if there is an outbreak here and there, given everything that everyone has learnt, both government and hospitals, there should be very strong confidence it will have close to zero impact on elective or emergency surgeries.”
Breast cancer screening also dropped during the pandemic but bounced back to a degree. The number of mammograms conducted between July and November was 12,000 higher than the same period in 2018, but there were 145,000 fewer mammograms between January and June compared to that period in 2018.
Emergency departments initially saw a bump in the number of people attending for respiratory concerns, peaking at 785 in the week of March 23. But since then there has been a “really dramatic reduction” in presentations, Dr Webster said, with more than 100,000 fewer in 2019-2020 than the previous year.
“The areas that dropped the most dramatically were injuries; presentations related to injury reduced quite a bit as a result of the social restrictions,” he said.
Rachel Clun is a federal political reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, covering health.
Melissa Cunningham is The Age’s health reporter.