Why these procedures shouldn’t be considered optional or less important
The COVID-19 pandemic put an incredible strain on our health care system. To provide immediate, lifesaving care, hospitals needed to prioritize life-threatening symptoms in an ever-growing population over other services.
To do that, many health care facilities had to put elective surgeries on hold.
Containing the spread of COVID-19 and conserving resources, such as personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators, were major factors in the decision to postpone elective surgeries.
Now that things are slowly returning to normal, there’s a public perception that elective surgeries are somehow less important than other procedures.
Let’s define elective
Both emergent surgeries and elective surgeries are equally important for overall health.
“With emergent surgery, there’s an immediate need to be addressed,” according to Mark Lesh, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at the Adena Orthopedic and Spine Institute. “If it’s not addressed, it can cause harm to the patient. In elective surgeries, it’s more a quality-of-life issue. It puts more on the patient to decide if their limitations and pain are significant enough to consider surgery for improved health.”
An elective procedure doesn’t necessarily mean an optional procedure. It simply means the surgery can be scheduled in advance. Elective surgeries can include simple procedures like removing a mole or a wart, or more serious conditions like a hip replacement. Elective procedures are vital to the health and well-being of patients but don’t qualify as emergencies.
There’s no set definition of what defines elective surgery. Some surgeries are required for health reasons. If you need surgery to remove an infection, treat an injury or fix a birth defect, it’s not elective. Other surgeries are less clear-cut. Cosmetic surgery is considered elective because it doesn’t cure any illness or injury.
Common elective surgeries
A wide range of surgical procedures can be considered elective, such as:
- Cosmetic surgeries – improve overall appearance. These procedures include facelifts, nose jobs, breast augmentation, liposuction and lip augmentation.
- Ear tube surgeries – help young children with middle ear infections, which occur when bacteria and viruses infect a child’s ear and fill it with pus and fluids. As it worsens, the infection can spread to the eardrums, causing pain and hearing damage.
- Tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy – removes the tonsils and the adenoid glands. These procedures treat the chronic infection that causes the organs to swell.
- Bariatric surgery – helps overweight and morbidly obese people lose weight by altering their digestive systems.
- Hernia repair surgery – fixes the bulge of the intestines that push the surrounding muscles. If left untreated, a hernia can cause vomiting and intense pain. If left untreated, it could suffocate and entangle the intestines, leading to death.
- Cataract surgery – takes out a clouded lens that’s been damaged by cataracts.
- Spinal fusion surgery – welds small bones in the spine to treat scoliosis, spinal infections and tumors.
- Total joint replacement – removes part (or all) of an arthritic or damaged joint and replaces it with a metal, plastic or ceramic device (called a prosthesis).
Other common procedures include:
- Breast cancer surgery (such as a mastectomy)
- Cleft lip repair
- Knee and shoulder arthroscopy
- Kidney stone removal
- Removing the tonsils and/or adenoids to treat obstructive sleep apnea
- Surgery for sports injuries
- Undescended testicle surgery
Other health benefits
Any type of surgery can be a physically demanding experience. That’s why elective surgeries allow doctors to work with patients to improve their overall health in the days and weeks leading up to the procedure. This can include:
- Eating healthier foods
- Exercising more
- Losing weight
- Reducing unhealthy habits such as smoking
Making electives a priority
If elective surgeries are good for your health, why do so many people not take them seriously? A recent University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging asked adults ages 50 to 80 about their decision-making around elective surgeries. Their major concerns included:
- Pain or discomfort
- Difficulty with recovery
- Out-of-pocket costs
- Exposure to COVID
- Time off work
- Having someone care for them
- An inability to care for someone else
Talk to your doctor
If you’re not sure whether surgery is required or elective, ask your doctor. If they recommend an elective surgery, you should carefully weigh the risks and benefits of the procedure and make sure it is right for you.
As with any surgery, it’s important to ask the right questions. These can include:
Why do I need this procedure?
Make sure you understand why the surgery is going to be performed and how it can help treat your condition or problem.
Are alternative treatments available?
Surgery is not always the only treatment for a medical problem. It’s often a last resort. It is essential that your surgeon carefully reviews all your available options with you before proceeding with surgery.
What are the risks?
Discuss what complications are linked to the surgery you are going to have (such as infection, bleeding or reaction to anesthesia).
What will happen if I don’t have surgery?
Will you have more pain? Will your symptoms get worse? Could the condition improve on its own?
What does the surgery involve?
You should have a good understanding of the basic steps of your surgery.
What will my recovery be like?
Will you be able to go home on the day of your surgery? Or will you need to remain in the hospital overnight or longer?
Don’t elect to skip a procedure
Elective surgeries serve the same purpose as other surgeries: to improve your health and make life better. There’s no reason to put something off that can help you be your best.
“If there’s a procedure out there that will allow you to get back to doing the things you want to do – you should do it,” says Dr. Lesh. “If it can increase mobility and function, you can improve your health both physically and mentally.”