Cancellation of non-urgent cardiac surgeries in Manitoba ‘unconscionable’: ICU physician

All non-emergency cardiac surgeries scheduled for this week have been temporarily cancelled in Manitoba.  

In a statement emailed late Friday, a spokesperson for Shared Health said the decision was made to ensure there’s enough intensive care unit capacity across the system heading into the weekend. 

There have been ongoing patient flow issues and staffing challenges that were heightened by patient demands, the statement said.

Three procedures were cancelled on Friday, according to the spokesperson.

Dr. Eric Jacobsohn, an intensive care unit physician and cardiac anesthesiologist at St. Boniface Hospital, said cancellations have happened intermittently over the past two years. 

There are more than 230 patients currently on the cardiac surgery wait-list, he said, 80 of whom have been waiting longer than national benchmarks for the longest possible wait for patients.

More than 60 patients on that list are in the sickest category, he said.

“These patients can’t be waiting for cardiac surgery. And frankly, what is happening is triage,” he said in a Saturday interview with CBC.

“We’re not triaging patients with COVID — patients are being admitted to ICU and are just delaying cardiac surgery, and it’s unequivocal, it is clear and it’s undisputable people are dying on the cardiac surgery wait list.”

Dr. Eric Jacobsohn, a Winnipeg ICU physician, says people are dying waiting for cardiac surgery. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Heart disease worsens with time, so by the time patients come for surgery, they’re sicker because of the unacceptable amount of time they’ve waited, he said.

“I think this is unconscionable.”

He added there is also a “profound psychological impact” for some patients who arrive at the hospital, only to find out their surgery has been cancelled. 

“Patients are not being offered the ability to go out of province, and the current situation has frustrated the entire care community,” he said.

“We knew it was coming. We appealed to government and all levels of system leadership to plan for this,” he said. 

Jacobsohn said he believes, in a public health-care system, there has to be public accountability for when people die on a wait list.

Task force details coming: minister

The cancellations come as dozens of patients have been moved to other hospitals in Manitoba to make room in Winnipeg’s hospitals during the province’s fourth wave of COVID-19 cases.

Earlier Friday, Shared Health said 62 patients had been moved to facilities in other health regions, including 41 patients moved from Winnipeg. Twenty-one others have been transferred from the Interlake-Eastern health region.

As of Thursday, 98 people were in Manitoba’s ICUs.

Shared Health said emergency cardiac surgeries are not affected. Next week’s scheduled surgeries are being reviewed. 

On Friday, Manitoba’s health minister said a timeline to clear the province’s growing backlog of surgeries and diagnostic procedures is on the way.

Audrey Gordon said the province will also publicly report on that timeline’s progress and establish a task force to tackle the issue.

The government announced the creation of that task force weeks ago, but hasn’t given any further details about it.

It initially promised to reveal those details after the Nov. 23 throne speech, and then pushed the announcement back to happen by the end of this week.

Now, the reveal is planned for next Wednesday, Gordon said, adding that it was delayed because of a scheduling issue with surgeons on the task force.

The recommendations to create a timeline, report on its progress and establish a task force come from Doctors Manitoba.

The advocacy group estimates the number of surgeries and procedures delayed in the province is now at 136,000 and climbing.

Union Station MLA Uzoma Asagwara said the province needs to announce details about its promised task force to address Manitoba’s growing surgical backlog. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Later Friday, NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara criticized Gordon for pushing back the task force announcement so many times.

“Manitobans have a right to know when they’re going to be able to finally get access to life-saving, life-altering surgeries and diagnostic tests,” the Union Station MLA said.

“And now all she’s done is delay those anxieties, delay people’s pain, delay people’s concern for the duration of the weekend and well into next week.”

Meanwhile, Manitoba’s years-long nursing shortage has worsened as the pandemic drags on.

Vacancy rates for nursing positions now hover around 20 per cent in several of the province’s health regions.

One of the highest rates is in the Northern Health Region, which reported as vacancy rate of 25.2 per cent as of Nov. 1.

The Southern Health region’s rate was 21.2 per cent at the end of September, while the Winnipeg health region reported a vacancy rate of 17.3 per cent as of October.

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