Dr. Harindra Wijeysundera, chief of Sunnybrook’s Schulich Heart Program, recently led a study published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology showing fewer patients were referred for heart disease procedures and surgeries during the pandemic. The study also revealed more patients died on waitlists during the same timeframe.
Why did you look at this issue?
Dr. Wijeysundera: During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, we kept hearing stories from patients and other doctors that there were delays in care for patients with heart disease. We decided to look deeper at the Ontario data that tracks waitlists and wait times for people living with heart disease who require a procedure or surgery.
What did you find?
Dr. Wijeysundera: The data was distressing – we learned that there was a significant decline in referrals and procedures in Ontario for common heart interventions after the pandemic started. Patients waiting for coronary bypass surgery or stenting were at a higher risk of dying while waiting for their procedure compared to before the pandemic. We found this to be consistent across patients with stable coronary artery disease, acute coronary syndrome and emergency referral.
Can you explain why this happened?
Dr. Wijeysundera: We are very interested in the “why” behind referrals decreasing so dramatically. We believe there are a number of reasons, some of which are patient factors such as fear of contracting COVID-19 in the hospital, or worries about missing work or family commitments. We suspect there are also system factors at play, such as delays in testing for heart conditions, as well as hospital bed and staffing pressures.
What is your advice for people who are noticing a change in their health?
Dr. Wijeysundera: Our biggest fear is that people are ignoring symptoms like chest tightness, or feeling lightheaded or short of breath, and not seeking care as they’re worried about placing burden on the health-care system. Or they may be afraid of contracting COVID-19 if they come to the hospital.
Hospitals are safe places to be – over a year and half into the pandemic, we have learned so much and know how to protect and care for you. Even if you feel like it’s not an emergency, please let us assess you. Yes, this may be virtually at first, but if we need to see you in person, we’ll make sure it’s done safely.
Where should patients start if they’re feeling new symptoms?
Dr. Wijeysundera: Your family doctor is always a good place, or your heart specialist if you’re already seeing one. Heart disease and stroke are time-sensitive conditions. We are committed to getting you the care you need, when you need it.