Winter illnesses in hospitals mean a long wait for heart and cancer operations

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Some acute heart patients wait weeks in the hospital for surgery, too sick to go home, but can’t get an operating room.

Photo: 123rf/ Georgiy Datsenko

And brain and cancer surgeries are also being postponed as winter pressure on hospitals extends to intensive care units.

Most hospitals said they had postponed non-emergency surgeries because the wards were so full or too many staff were sick.

But Cardiac Society president and cardiologist Selwyn Wong said patients who needed urgent procedures were now waiting much longer than usual.

They may have had a heart attack or some form of heart failure, but waited up to three weeks for their surgery.

“These are people who are considered sick enough to wait in the hospital and not safe enough to wait at home for their surgeries,” he said.

“The urgent things will be done first and the urgent ones will wait longer than we would hope.”

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There was a risk that they would get worse with waiting, he said.

Part of the problem was the pressure on intensive care units, which became congested with patients and faced with staff shortages.

Many heart patients needed an intensive care bed after surgery, but there was often none.

An intensive care specialist and spokesperson for the Intensive Care Society, Andrew Stapleton, said it was the same for several other serious conditions, including some brain surgery and tricky cancer surgery, such as for liver cancer.

Because many hospitals were very full, sometimes there were no ward beds available to transfer patients to when they were deemed well enough to leave the ICU — a situation known as exit block.

As a result, they had to stay longer in the ICU, leaving no room for new patients.

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Sometimes those in need of intensive care got it by being moved to another part of the country, something that was protocol long before Covid-19 came under pressure, he said.

Winter illnesses also affected ICU staff.

In some departments, senior doctors had to step in to fill the junior doctor role, he said.

dr. Stapleton said it was encouraging to see the number of Covid-19 cases decreasing, but said there will likely be a few more weeks of pressure in intensive care units.

dr. Wong said short staffing in other parts of the hospital, such as theater nurses, also contributed to the surgical delays.

His colleagues made good decisions about who should be prioritized, but it was very frustrating to see people who really needed surgery having to wait longer than they should, he said.

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Te Whatu Ora, the new national health authority, said there was intensive care capacity this week, with about 72 percent of intensive care or high-dependency beds on Tuesday.

ICUs and HDUs were busy but still had the capacity to treat critical patients, a spokesperson said.

Hospitals provided as much planned care as possible and triaged those with the highest clinical need, they said.

dr. Stapleton said delays in scheduled care allowed for more capacity, but it was very difficult to measure because it could change from shift to shift — especially with staffing levels.

Some parts of the country were hit harder than others, he said.

There was some hope for intensive care in the medium term, and new funding is already underway to create 84 extra beds across the country, he said.