“This is the tip of the iceberg” warns BHF as cardiothoracic surgeries cancelled

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The British Heart Foundation (BHF) has warned of the potentially dire consequences caused by the mass cancellation of cardiothoracic surgery procedures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

An analysis published by the organisation this week suggests that there were 12,000 fewer heart operations performed in England in the year to November 2020, and has warned that the backlog in procedures is likely to continue growing as COVID-19 cases in the country mount.

In total, the number of heart operations, such as coronary bypass and heart valve surgery, fell to around 25,000 by the end of the November lockdown from 37,000 during the same period in 2019, the BHF’s analysis suggests. Other invasive heart procedures, such as fitting stents or balloons to open blocked arteries, have been impacted too. In total, around 96,000 fewer heart operations and procedures than expected took place in the year to November 2020 in England compared to the same period in 2019.

In a press release highlighting the figures, BHF noted that paradoxically, surgery and treatment waiting lists are shrinking at the same time as operation and procedure numbers are falling. The organisation attributed this to a lack of available non-COVID-19 care, meaning that fewer people are being added to waiting lists.

The analysis showed that there were 39,067 fewer people were on waiting lists for heart operations and procedures at the end of November in England compared to February 2020.

“We believe the latest figures are just ‘the tip of the iceberg,’ with a hidden, larger backlog of heart care left unaccounted for,” BHF said. “We have warned that more disruption for heart patients is yet to come as COVID-19 admissions soar, resulting in heart surgery and procedures being paused.”

Commenting on the figures, Sonya Babu-Narayan, BHF’s associate medical director, said: “The NHS is working on overdrive to prioritise all urgent COVID and non-COVID care.

“At the same time, we must not lose sight of people with heart conditions whose planned treatment has been delayed. Surgery and other invasive procedures to treat heart disease are not luxuries that people can easily go without – delaying them can cost lives.

“The significant backlog of people needing heart treatment will keep growing as COVID-19 cases soar. This may only be the tip of the iceberg as the true scale of the disruption to cardiovascular healthcare is still unknown.

“The moment the current crisis abates, we need to urgently address the backlog of people waiting for treatment before it becomes too late for some. To do this, hospitals will inevitably need more and ongoing investment in heart and circulatory disease care.”


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