Hospitals Face Patient Backlog, Financial Issues After COVID-19

A new Newsy/Ipsos poll found 33% of people surveyed have postponed or skipped in-person medical care out of fear of contracting COVID-19.
Posted at 5:07 PM, Apr 24, 2020

"It's kind of unknown when we're going to restart," Dr. Mark Tuttle says. 

ERs may be going 1,000 miles an hour — but Dr. Mark Tuttle’s Colorado practice is at a standstill. He’s an orthopedic surgeon. Most of what he does is considered elective, so he's been on hold since March. 

He’s not alone. Cataract surgery, hip replacement, tonsil removal, physical therapy, post-breast cancer reconstruction … anything that isn’t life-or-death is on pause. 

That’s not the only reason so many practices are idle: A new Newsy/Ipsos pollfound 33% of people surveyed have postponed or skipped in-person medical care out of fear of contracting COVID-19. 

"Those problems don't stop because COVID has come through. Those problems are continuing, and the backlog will just get bigger and bigger," Tuttle said. 

The crunch will come when the lockdown is lifted. Doctors fear backlogs of patients, higher levels of burnout and more severe cases will flood the hospital system in the months to come. The problem is especially acute in small, rural hospitals that depend on elective surgery to bring in money.

"These small, standalone facilities do not have the networks and infrastructures that they can readily tap into to help them be more resilient and provide better care," Patricia Davidson, Dean at Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, told Newsy.

The cash crunch is of course affecting patients, too. With so many Americans unemployed, all those out-of-pocket costs, copays and premiums will be hard to find. And that can be dangerous, because research shows people who wait for surgery may deteriorate more the longer they wait, leading to more serious and even more expensive treatment.

"What we will probably see is that some patients who are well-controlled on their chronic medical condition might not be able to maintain that control. So you can expect possibly patients with diabetes or hypertension or HIV or fill-in-the-blank chronic disease whose control of that condition might slip during this time because a scheduled appointment had to be canceled or rerouted," Jason Farley, an infectious diseases nurse epidemiologist and nurse practitioner at Johns Hopkins University told Newsy.

If there is a silver lining, it’s that some patients will opt for less-invasive options — like physical therapy instead of surgery. 

As for Tuttle, he still has several weeks of waiting before he can get back to operating — and facing that backlog.

"We do anticipate being extremely busy once we get going again. There were already a lot of surgeries scheduled and we've been seeing more patients that need surgery," Tuttle said.

While elective surgeries are starting back up again in states like Texas and Missouri, HCA Healthcare, the hospital system Tuttle works for, plans to resume postponed procedures by June.