Massachusetts calls on hospitals to reduce elective procedures amid staffing shortages

Massachusetts is requiring hospitals and health systems to reduce non-urgent scheduled surgical procedures. But the top reason isn't a surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

The state’s public health department released guidance this week to hospitals that aims to conserve inpatient hospital capacity, with a major staffing shortage and a wave of non-COVID-19 care key drivers of the decision.

The order goes into effect Nov. 29 and requires any hospital or system that has a limited capacity to curb nonessential and non-urgent procedures.

A key driver of the guidance is a staffing shortage that has swept across the hospital industry not just in Massachusetts but throughout the country.

“This staffing shortage has also contributed to the loss of approximately 500 medical/surgical and ICU hospital beds across the commonwealth,” according to a release on the guidance.

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Another driver was concern of an influx of non-COVID-19 care that was deferred due to the pandemic.

Massachusetts was also worried about annual increases of hospitalizations typically seen after the Thanksgiving holiday through January.

The order comes even though COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state are lower than “almost every other state in the nation,” said Marylou Sudders, the state’s secretary of health and human services, in a statement.

The guidance defines a nonessential procedure as one that is scheduled in advance because it is not a medical emergency. The reduction will not have any impact on urgent nor essential procedures.

Massachusetts’ guidance was crafted with support from the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association and other providers in the state.

“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,” said Eric Dickson, president and CEO of UMass Memorial Health and a board member of the association.

States required hospitals to postpone or cancel elective procedures at the onset of the pandemic to preserve capacity to fight the crush of COVID-19 cases.

Some states have called for similar pauses this year, including Texas, but that was in response to renewed surges of the virus and not due to exacerbating issues like staffing and deferred care.