Dr. Li's Guide to Surgery During the COVID-19 Pandemic

This year, the world-wide COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we all live and operate on a daily basis. The hospital where I work in Southern California has been no exception. While getting surgery has always been a stressful event, getting surgery during a pandemic is a different experience altogether. Despite the ever-changing rules, I want to shine a light into the darkness regarding what you can expect from getting surgery during this time. I want to be clear that I am speaking from my personal experience in my cancer hospital, but it is likely that you will see similar procedures if you also live in a high-case area. Here are 3 things you should expect when getting surgery during this COVID-19 pandemic.

Firstly, all patients need to be tested for COVID-19 before their surgeries. Expect to be tested 1-5 days prior to your procedure. Conveniently, in my hospital we have our own on-campus, drive-thru COVID-19 testing site, so all patients get tested the day before surgery. Patients are notified of their results within hours of being tested. Make sure that after testing you self-isolate to prevent subsequent infection. Only those who test negative for COVID-19 can proceed with elective (non-essential) surgery. However, if you need life-saving/essential surgery, exceptions should be made.

Well, what if the test tells you that you’re positive and you were going to have elective surgery? If you are positive and asymptomatic, you will be told to self-isolate for at least 2 weeks, and your surgery will be rescheduled for a future date. Why are hospitals so strict about not performing surgery for COVID-positive patients? 30-day mortality rates after surgery were approximately 24% in patients that were COVID-positive (The Lancet).

Secondly, hospitals are limiting who can enter, and those who are eligible must be screened before entry. Everyone must go through a fever scan and a set of screening questions. These questions will usually assess whether or not you have symptoms and how exposed you may have been to the virus. Additionally, there is also a hospital-wide ‘no visitor’ policy. This means that whether you are getting surgery or coming to a clinic visit, you must come alone. Like many healthcare professionals, I have tried to overcome this emotional hurdle for patients by offering the option to video call, so their loved ones can listen to our conversation, see the consultation, and chime in when they want. For patients admitted into the hospital, we will allow family members to come to the window to see their loved ones if they have a street-level room. Also, children are usually allowed to have one parent with them.

Finally, we have been performing a lot more ‘televideo’ office visits in place of traditional face-to-face visits. Virtual office videos are usually on each hospital’s private, secure platform and are frequently used for follow-up visits after a patient has surgery. This decreases the amount of traffic entering hospitals and prevents possible exposure to asymptomatic individuals at the hospital.  

If you have concerns about getting surgery during the COVID-19 pandemic, speak with your surgeon to see the additional safety precautions that are in place in your hospital.

Good luck and stay safe!

-- Dr. Li


Please note that these blog posts are for informational purposes only and should not be used as medical advice, to diagnose, or treat patients.

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