Patient, family and professional suggestions for pandemic-related surgical backlog recovery: a qualitative study

CMAJ Open. 2023 Mar 14;11(2):E255-E266. doi: 10.9778/cmajo.20220109. Print 2023 Mar-Apr.


Background: Surgical shutdowns related to the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in prolonged wait times for nonemergency surgery. We aimed to understand informational needs and generate suggestions on management of the surgical backlog in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic through focus groups with key stakeholders.

Methods: We performed a qualitative study with focus groups held between Sept. 29 and Nov. 30, 2021, in Ontario, with patients who underwent or were awaiting surgery during the pandemic and their family members, and health care leaders with experience or influence overseeing the delivery of surgical services. We conducted the focus groups virtually; focus groups for patients and family members were conducted separately from health care leaders to ensure participants could speak freely about their experiences. Our goal was to elicit information on the impact of communication about the surgical backlog, how this communication may be improved, and to generate and prioritize suggestions to address the backlog. Data were mapped onto 2 complementary frameworks that categorized approaches to reduction in wait times and strategies to improve health care delivery.

Results: A total of 11 patients and family members and 20 health care leaders (7 nursing surgical directors, 10 surgeons and 3 administrators) participated in 7 focus groups (2 patient and family, and 5 health care leader). Participants reported receiving conflicting information about the surgical backlog. Suggestions for communication about the backlog included unified messaging from a single source with clear language to educate the public. Participants prioritized the following suggestions for surgical recovery: increase supply through focusing on system efficiencies and maintaining or increasing health care personnel; incorporate patient-centred outcomes into triage definitions; and refine strategies for performance management to understand and measure inequities between surgeons and centres, and consider the impact of funding incentives on "nonpriority" procedures.

Interpretation: Patients and their families and health care leaders experienced a lack of communication about the surgical backlog and suggested this information should come from a single source; key suggestions to manage the surgical backlog included a focus on system efficiencies, incorporation of patient-centred outcomes into triage definitions, and improving the measurement of wait times to monitor health system performance. The suggestions generated in this study that may be used to address surgical backlog recovery in the Canadian setting.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19* / epidemiology
  • Delivery of Health Care
  • Humans
  • Ontario
  • Pandemics*
  • Qualitative Research