Surgical Resource Management during the COVID-19 Pandemic – Insights from Global Surgery

A guest blog by:

Joshua S. Ng-Kamstra, Fellow in Adult Critical Care Medicine – Department of Critical Care Medicine, University of Calgary,

Dhruvin H. Hirpara, Resident in General Surgery – Department of Surgery, University of Toronto,

John Meara, Professor of Global Surgery and Social Medicine – Program in Global Surgery and Social Change, Harvard Medical School, Boston & Department of Plastic and Oral Surgery, Boston Children’s Hospital, Boston, &

Julie Hallet, Assistant Professor – Department of Surgery, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre & Department of Surgery, University of Toronto


The COVID-19 pandemic poses an acute threat to human health that is unprecedented in our lifetimes. Many health systems still continue to grapple with the volume of critically ill patients suffering from the virus.. The impacts of this crisis on surgical systems are being felt worldwide by patients and surgical providers. The estimated 30% of the global burden of disease caused by surgical conditions does not pause during a pandemic.1 Each year, 16.9 million people die due to surgically treatable conditions,2 and 15.2 million new cancers are diagnosed, 80% of which will require surgery.3 The magnitude and immediacy of the threat from COVID-19 has led many jurisdictions to cancel elective surgery to preserve precious hospital and critical care beds and limit nosocomial spread of the virus. As local trajectories of the pandemic become clear, surgeons and policymakers need to determine an optimal approach to meet population-level surgical needs to avoid additional pandemic-related morbidity and mortality.

Surgical systems are logistically demanding and interconnected networks of services: adaptation to the realities of limited operating theater availability is therefore complex. Human resources will also be threatened;4 safeguarding healthcare workers despite finite availability of personal protective equipment further adds to service delivery challenges. High-volume surgical systems must have the flexibility to systematically scale back provision of surgical care in a way that makes optimal use of resources while minimizing impacts on patients, providers, and systems. Looking at structured ways to operationalize sudden reductions in resources quickly, all countries can learn from existing principles and frameworks in the global surgery literature. Indeed, in addition to advocating for the health and economic benefits of investment in surgical systems,2 the global surgery literature recognizes and addresses the challenge of working under constraint. 

Prioritization of Surgical Services 

Surgical societies have provided guidance to surgeons as to which procedures are essential during this crisis.5,6 Such determinations are based on acuity, complexity, and population burden of disease. In a “must do, should do, can do” procedural framework,2 most surgeons have found themselves limited to providing only the first category: high value procedures (i.e. some cancer surgery) where long-term outcomes may hinge on timely surgical intervention, and urgent life- or limb-saving procedures. Should-do procedures are important but not vital procedures that may be amenable to a temporary workaround and still add value in the long run. Finally, can-do procedures are ones that are often desirable but not necessary—they could be deprioritized first with a relatively smaller impact on patient outcomes. These categories ought to be reassessed as resources change, but this framework can support discussions at the system, institution, and service levels. Non-operative management of traditionally surgical conditions (eg. antibiotics for uncomplicated appendicitis or endoscopic management of an early-stage esophageal cancer) may also aid in resource conservation. Finally, trauma prevention campaigns can be implemented or scaled up to minimize the need for emergency surgery.7  

Mitigating Harm from Delays to Care 

Globally, increased delays in access to surgical care are likely. Breaking these delays down into their three constituent components may help to mitigate them.2,8 First, is the delay in seeking care. With travel restrictions or residential lockdowns, the threshold to seek answers to concerns unrelated to the pandemic will increase. Creating easy access to primary care and surgical expertise, via telehealth for example, will give populations a venue to triage health concerns. Barriers to telehealth including finance, technical considerations, and confidentiality should be addressed collectively by providers, payers, government, and regulatory colleges. Second, the delay in reaching care at an appropriate center where diagnostics and therapeutics can be applied is less amenable to a technological solution. Maintaining separate health facilities as designated non-COVID-19 centers is one strategy to allow surgical work to continue or resume shortly after the pandemic peaks. As the pandemic progresses, the number of non-COVID-19 centres are reduced proportional to need as more patients present with viral illness, expanding again once the pandemic’s initial peak has passed. Finally, mitigating the delay in receiving surgical care requires adaptive waitlist management at the hospital level when progressively narrower bottlenecks in operating room time are encountered. Managing staffing constraints and pandemic-related supply chain disruptions will be critical to ensure that the appropriate personnel and disposables are available to use operating theaters as efficiently as possible.

Stuff, staff, space, and systems and the perils of reopening

Governments are struggling to balance the devastating economic consequences of ongoing stay-at-home orders with the risk of an overwhelming second wave of infections.9 While the optimal timing and strategy for reopening the economy remain unclear, strategies to mitigate the hazard of disease resurgence include widespread testing, serological surveys to better understand community-level exposure, staged relaxation of distancing measures, and bolstering hospital capacity to manage potential new cases. What these strategies all require are staff, stuff, space, and systems, an alliterative list of necessities for global health delivery coined by Dr. Paul Farmer.10

When public health officials deem it safe to resume some elective surgery, surgical leaders can also use this model to ensure that surgery again becomes available. Staff may need to be remarshaled from deployments to other acute care services; ensuring their mental and physical health during a period of significant stress will be critical. Stuff includes not only robust supplies of the necessary personal protective equipment to safely assess, operate on, and provide postoperative care for patients, but also medications and other operating room disposables that may become scarce due to supply chain disruptions. Space implies not only physical operating room space, but also appropriate spacing between postoperative patients, ideally in individual rooms, to prevent outbreaks of COVID-19 on wards. Finally, systems are required to ensure that care pathways for infected and uninfected patients are developed, staff are trained in their implementation, and their logistics are feasible.

Integrating surgery and other acute care services into global health security

Global health security (GHS) implies global collaboration to ensure that all health systems are prepared to manage public health threats and emergencies. Historically, the GHS discourse has been focused on infectious diseases as the primary public health threat born of globalization.11 The Global Health Security Agenda is a growing community of nations and organizations formed in 2014 to respond to infectious disease threats.12 By strengthening public health systems and stopping outbreaks at their point of origin, the GHSA aimed to decrease the risk of global pandemic disease. When it comes to a pandemic, the aphorism that prevention is better than cure is true. But it is an aphorism that historically excluded surgery from the global health discourse—why invest in surgery when some surgical disease is preventable?

The Lancet Commission on Global Surgery demonstrated the scale of human suffering that results when prevention is preached to the exclusion of treatment, with five billion individuals unable to access safe, affordable surgical care when needed.2 Not all surgical disease is preventable, and not every pandemic is stopped. GHS must evolve to include health services like critical care and surgery to plan for effective treatment of patients after a pandemic has emerged. If plans to address global critical care needs were in place before COVID-19, would countries have better mobilized to support beleaguered hospitals in China, Italy, or New York? If countries had anticipated the impacts of a pandemic on surgical care, would the cancellation of all elective surgery have been necessary? While these counterfactuals are unknowable, what is clear is that health services leaders must sit at the global health security table alongside infectious disease epidemiologists and public health professionals.


COVID-19 has reached almost every country on earth, and many surgical systems have already responded to the challenges it poses. The choices made in surgical system design, both historically and recently, will determine patient outcomes in the coming weeks and months. The shock to surgical systems will not be a short one—until the majority of the population has been exposed to the virus via vaccine or illness,13 the virus will pose a unique barrier to accessing safe surgical care.

Now more than ever, we must emphasize interdisciplinary collaboration, knowledge exchange, and health equity in order to maximize the efficiency of surgical access in all jurisdictions.14 Global surgery frameworks can support adaptation to rapid shifts in resource availability. More importantly, they can be used to plan the post-pandemic delivery of surgical services, serve to reconceive routine surgical care delivery systems, and plan resource scaling strategies to build more flexibility into surgical delivery in the future.

National surgical crisis planning must become part of the health systems lexicon. Mitigating acute threats to surgical systems including natural disasters, economic downturns, workforce declines, supply chain disruptions, military conflicts, and pandemic disease is not optional: our patients’ lives depend on it.


1.         Shrime MG, Bickler SW, Alkire BC, Mock C. Global burden of surgical disease: an estimation from the provider perspective. The Lancet Global health 2015; 3 Suppl 2: S8-9.

2.         Meara JG, Leather AJ, Hagander L, et al. Global Surgery 2030: evidence and solutions for achieving health, welfare, and economic development. Lancet 2015.

3.         Sullivan R, Alatise OI, Anderson BO, et al. Global cancer surgery: delivering safe, affordable, and timely cancer surgery. Lancet Oncol 2015; 16(11): 1193-224.

4.         Bundu I, Patel A, Mansaray A, Kamara TB, Hunt LM. Surgery in the time of Ebola: how events impacted on a single surgical institution in Sierra Leone. J R Army Med Corps 2016; 162(3): 212-6.

5.         Mock CN, Donkor P, Gawande A, et al. Essential surgery: key messages from Disease Control Priorities, 3rd edition. Lancet 2015; 385(9983): 2209-19.

6.         American College of Surgeons. Guidance for Triage of Non-Emergent Surgical Procedures. 2020. (accessed March 20 2020).

7.         Kotagal M, Agarwal-Harding KJ, Mock C, Quansah R, Arreola-Risa C, Meara JG. Health and economic benefits of improved injury prevention and trauma care worldwide. PLoS One 2014; 9(3): e91862.

8.         Thaddeus S, Maine D. Too far to walk: maternal mortality in context. Soc Sci Med 1994; 38(8): 1091-110.

9.         Kissler SM, Tedijanto C, Goldstein E, Grad YH, Lipsitch M. Projecting the transmission dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 through the postpandemic period. Science 2020.

10.       Farmer P. Diary: Ebola. London Review of Books 2014; 36(20).

11.       Karan A. How Should Global Health Security Priorities Be Set in the Global North and West? AMA J Ethics 2020; 22(1): E50-4.

12.       Osterholm M. Global Health Security—An Unfinished Journey. Emerg Infect Dis 2017; 23(Suppl 1): S225-S7.

13.       Ferguson N, Laydon D, Nedjati-Gilani G, et al. Report 9: Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID19 mortality and healthcare demand: Imperial College, 2020.

14.       Dare AJ, Grimes CE, Gillies R, et al. Global surgery: defining an emerging global health field. Lancet 2014; 384(9961): 2245-7.

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