Postponing procedures during the pandemic sparked anxiety and fear among patients, with many concerned about dying of their conditions before getting surgery.

Despite all the uncertainty, many patients preferred to wait to undergo surgery in an effort to avoid catching COVID-19.  In the past year, more Americans have died than would be expected, even when accounting for those who have passed away from COVID-19 or related complications. One of the driving factors may be certain cardiovascular conditions, namely ischemic heart disease — when narrowed coronary arteries cause heart problems — and illness related to high blood pressure. States that experienced COVID-19 surges early in the pandemic, including New York and Michigan, also saw a spike in deaths linked to these issues, potentially because patients avoided health care during those periods.

“Patients are suffering even though we don’t see them,” Byrnes says. “We have to think about our policies and how we talk to patients in terms of the fact that they think they’re going to die — and they might.”

“As a healthcare system, we may also need to design and implement interventions, such as support systems or social work resources, to minimize the impact these delays have on the well-being of our patients,” says Craig Brown, M.D., M.S., a general surgery resident at Michigan Medicine and an additional author of the study. “It is not simply an inconvenience to many of them, but rather has dramatic consequences and substantial psychological impacts on their wellbeing.”

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