Return of 'elective' med procedures a welcome relief in the COVID crisis

May 8, 2020 Robert H. Peck

Among the litany of business reopenings and other economic and public health easings we are seeing, there are few which can practically be considered completely safe.

Most advice from experts suggests waiting to see virus cases steadily decline for some period of time before beginning to reopen. This, to say the least, has not been the case in most states we've seen resume some or most of their work.

We should work toward avoiding a spike in cases from the premature reopenings. We might do it if we're careful, but we're acting against the advice of many well-trained people in doing it.

Nonetheless, there is one area of resumption I which to call special attention to, and indeed to praise: the continuation, after a weeks or months-long pause, of so-called "elective" medical procedures.

When I first heard that phrase, I assumed that an elective procedure was an unnecessary one: something like a wart removal or other cosmetic procedure, say.

It was a shame these things had to pause, but it made sense to me.

I have since learned how wrong I was about what an elective procedure is.

Johns Hopkins Medicine defines an elective procedure as one that is scheduled in advance, as opposed to being conducted on the spur of the moment to avert some imminent catastrophe.

That's it. Everything non-emergency else is considered elective.

A great deal of surgeries and other procedures that seem optional are, indeed elective procedures.

However, so are other things that we might be less likely to classify as unnecessary because they treat dangerous conditions..

Cancer treatments for cancers that are not imminently causing death.

Treatments for chronic pain. Surgeries to correct limbs that have ceased to work, eyes that have ceased to see, hearts that exhibit risk, in the near future, of collapse.

Any of these things may be classified as an elective procedure--and, for the past few weeks or months, they've been off-limits.

This has been done for good reason. For some time, nearly all of the protective equipment available to hospitals has been needed for those interventions that prevent imminent death.

Namely, it's been used to help victims of COVID-19, of whom there have been so many that the medical resources of much of the world have been needed just to prevent the deaths of the afflicted.

In the pandemic, it's as if tens of thousands more people worldwide suddenly developed cancers or heart diseases that would kill them that day, or within a few days, if they weren't helped right now.

Under those circumstances, our resources are stretched thin. Anything that isn't going to kill you imminently has to be put on hold, even if it's pretty bad.

This makes good sense. But it doesn't mean that the suffering of those impacted by these other conditions is any less.

For weeks, there have been countless people suffering in pain or illness for which they could get no relief. The medical system hasn't been an option.

So, while I look askance at some of the reopening going on now around the nation, resuming elective surgery and other such procedures is something I encourage our researchers, suppliers, hospitals and local governments to look into vigorously.

The conditions these procedures treat might not be about to kill us, but often they close.

The sooner we can "electively" relieve the pain, the better.


Editor's note: Riverton native Robert H. Peck is a member of the faculty at the University of Iowa, teaching in the Department of Rhetoric, where he also is co-director of the Iowa Speaking Center.

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