At least 300 Winnipeg surgeries in September postponed over anesthesia staff shortages

At least 300 surgeries scheduled next month in Winnipeg have been postponed due to a shortage of anesthesia staff and will be rescheduled, Shared Health has confirmed.

“Due to anesthesia shortages the planned resumption of full surgical slates will not happen,” said the internal memo obtained by CBC News, which was signed by Dr. Ed Buchel, the head of the surgery department at the University of Manitoba’s health sciences faculty and provincial specialty lead for surgery at Shared Health.

A spokesperson for the provincial health organization confirmed the issue is due to a “current shortage of anesthesiologist coverage through the month of September.”

The surgeries are primarily outpatient elective procedures, Shared Health says.

“Local, national and international recruitment is underway, and every effort is being made to optimize the scheduling of anesthesiologists in order to minimize the impact to patient care,” the email says.

Health-care facilities are planning to schedule procedures that do not require anesthesia in place of the surgeries they can no longer accommodate.

October surgeries also affected

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority memo, which was sent on Thursday, instructs staff at all five Winnipeg hospitals and the Pan-Am Clinic to cancel 106 surgical slates in total in September.

The number of procedures completed in a slate will vary based on the type and complexity of the procedure, but Shared Health estimates at least 300 cases will need to be rescheduled as a result. 

Buchel adds in his memo that there will also be surgery reductions in October, but final numbers are unclear.

A woman wearing a stethoscope stands in a medical examination room.
Dr. Candace Bradshaw, president of Doctors Manitoba, says a long COVID clinic is needed to meet the needs of patients in Manitoba. (Tyson Koschik/ CBC)

Doctors Manitoba isn’t surprised that staffing woes have led to the situation.

“This is a completely predictable and avoidable outcome and a huge setback for the health system when we’re already trying to deal with a massive pandemic backlog of surgeries and diagnostic tests,” said president Dr. Candace Bradshaw, who explained the province should have seen the lack of staff coming.

“The warnings have been there for a long time.”

According to the dashboard created by Doctors Manitoba, which last estimated the province’s diagnostic and surgical backlog in June, between 31,664 and 39,674 surgeries have been delayed because of the pandemic.

Health Minister Audrey Gordon explained staffing challenges are being felt beyond Manitoba’s borders.

“It’s what we all across the country and internationally are facing, which is a global staffing shortage and it’s impacting our ability to carry out surgeries and to reduce the backlog as quickly as we had hoped,” she said following an unrelated news conference on Friday.

A Black woman in a polka dot top is pictured in front of a brick wall.
Health Minister Audrey Gordon said on Friday that cancelled surgery slates may be rescheduled or moved out of the city. (CBC)

Gordon stresses the surgeries are being postpone, not cancelled. She says staff are making every effort to either reschedule the procedures or move them out of Winnipeg.

“We may be able to start up some slates in some sites to be able to manage the changes as a result of the staffing shortage, but I don’t want anyone to have angst or begin to worry,” Gordon said.

“I want them to know that we are on top of it, and we are working with the surgery program to identify how we can reschedule those surgeries.”

As a result of the reduced staffing, Manitoba is prioritizing elective procedures based on the urgency of the procedure and the length of the patient’s stay. Urgent and emergent surgeries have not been affected, Shared Health says.

The minister pointed to the province’s spending to support a program that will help bolster anesthesia staffing in Manitoba.

“Over three years we’re going to add 13 new anesthesia clinical assistants and that program will allow anesthesiologists to actually care for more than one patient at a time,” she said.

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