Massachusetts hospitals ordered to reduce elective surgeries, procedures

The state's hospitals are dealing with serious capacity issues and a shortage of healthcare workers.

Facing a staffing crunch, hospitals in Massachusetts have been ordered to reduce some non-essential surgeries and procedures.

Last week, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration issued the order directing hospitals with limited capacity to delay some elective procedures and services. The order takes effect today.

The Massachusetts Department of Health and the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association worked on the guidance together. The health department cited “a critical staffing shortage across the healthcare system, largely due to staff shortages stemming from the pandemic.” The shortage has effectively led to the loss of 500 medical/surgical and ICU beds across the state.

Hospitals in Massachusetts are treating coronavirus patients and, increasingly, patients with other health conditions who had postponed treatment due to the pandemic.

"The current strain on hospital capacity is due to longer than average hospital stays and significant workforce shortages, separate and apart from the challenges brought on by COVID,” Massachusetts Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders said in a statement. “COVID hospitalizations in Massachusetts remain lower than almost every other state in the nation, but the challenges the healthcare system face remain, and this order will ensure hospitals can serve all residents, including those who require treatment for COVID-19.”

Massachusetts hospitals are treating 771 COVID-19 patients, according to the state’s health department. Over the past seven days, the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests in Massachusetts is about 3.4%.

While Massachusetts isn’t grappling with the high COVID infection levels seen in some other states, the state’s hospitals are still severely challenged right now.

In some ways, the surge of patients with non-COVID health issues is posing a greater problem.

Hospitals in Massachusetts “are contending with unprecedented capacity pressures,” said Kevin Tabb, president & CEO of Beth Israel Lahey Health. “Although COVID-related hospitalizations are far from what they were at their peak, we are now caring for an unusually high number of patients with other health problems – many of whom were hesitant to seek treatment during the height of the pandemic and whose health issues have become more serious over time.”

Steve Walsh, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association, said the order is needed to ensure hospitals can provide care to those who need it.

“Our healthcare system and state leaders have done heroic work to mitigate this public health crisis over the past 20 months. But we are now seeing significant strain on hospital capacity due largely to workforce shortages and an influx of non-COVID-19 patients who deferred care and now need complex medical care,” Walsh said in a statement.

Eric Dickson, president and CEO of UMass Memorial Health, said the order is needed, although he acknowledged it would be a disappointment for those awaiting scheduled procedures. Before the pandemic, hospitals typically would see more patients as the holidays approached. Now, they’re preparing for an influx of patients when staffing is reduced.

“While we recognize that delaying some prescheduled surgeries may present a significant hardship for patients, we believe it is a necessary step to assure that all of the Commonwealth’s hospitals can continue to meet the needs of patients requiring emergency care,” Dickson said.

Christine Schuster, president & CEO of Emerson Hospital, urged healthcare professionals in Massachusetts to apply for some of the many open positions available.

“This is a call to action for healthcare professionals, or for anyone who feels driven to make an impact by joining the ranks of our caregivers,” Schuster said. “There are thousands of healthcare jobs available across the state for people of all backgrounds and education levels. And we need you.”