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Improving the elective surgery backlog caused by the pandemic


We can close the elective surgery backlog, but it will require the healthcare industry to embrace new technologies and innovation.

physician calendar planning

The surgical backlog caused by COVID-19 gives us the opportunity to take a step back and ask: “is surgery really the best course of action for all of these patients?”

COVID-19 found the world ill-equipped to face the rigors of a global health crisis. Nobody quite knew how to brace for the novel health threat, and the pandemic has had far-reaching implications for individuals, families, businesses, and communities alike. That said, the healthcare industry should be driving the standard for safe, efficient, and customer-centered experiences in the wake of unexpected challenges like the COVID-19 crisis, but it’s not. We know the system and we know the stakes, and still, our most vulnerable populations continue to face even steeper barriers to the care they need.

Other industries, most notably financial services and education, were able to quickly adapt operations to meet evolving customer demands at an uncertain time. Healthcare, despite a quick move to telehealth for some delivery of care, has been less effective at managing the transition to socially distant service delivery for all who need it. Nowhere is this more evident than in the elective surgery backlog.

To limit the spread of the novel coronavirus—and to preserve critical resources at a critical time—many states enacted a temporary ban on elective surgery from March through May 2020. It was an important step that saved lives, but it also resulted in a three-month backlog of uncompleted procedures and a persistent backlog of surgeries that continue to be delayed. Further, many who were waiting for procedures at the start of the pandemic are still not comfortable returning to healthcare settings.

Healthcare providers and patients know that elective does not mean unimportant or unnecessary. In fact, a significant number of backlogged surgeries are for patients struggling with musculoskeletal conditions and chronic pain. Individuals with mobility issues who are already uniquely vulnerable to the pitfalls of a lingering pandemic are now forced to navigate unwieldy transportation systems, their own legitimate concerns about the safety of face-to-face interactions, and a healthcare system that was ill-equipped for a quick transition to remote services. 

Similarly, a reluctance to adopt new technologies and approaches made healthcare uniquely vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic. As we look ahead to the coming flu season and its looming implications for an already strained healthcare system, we should also look ahead to the innovations that will propel our field forward and enable us to meet today’s challenges and beyond—and be unafraid to embrace them.

We must think about how we can deploy technological advancements to provide frictionless and customer-centric care. Patients are no longer just patients—they’re consumers who have increasingly come to expect on-demand digital experiences in healthcare, just as with all other industries. The healthcare industry largely lags behind, say, the banking industry, in its ability to consistently deliver on these expectations because it has failed to focus on howpatients experience health care.

It is possible to provide patients, or better say consumers, what they need despite the challenging times. We can close the elective surgery backlog. We can make it easier for patients to access the care they need, anytime and anywhere through virtual care.

Technology and innovation are the keys to help patients navigate complex conditions during COVID-19 and beyond.

About the Author

Clifford Bleustein, MD, MBA, is an Adjunct Professor of Economics at the NYU Stern School of Business, and the President and CEO of AposTherapy®, a global medical device company that combines science and innovation to give individuals seeking neuromuscular and musculoskeletal health the power of movement. To learn more about AposTherapy, visit:

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