Pandemic forces Spain’s hospitals to cancel 570,000 surgeries

Thousands of patients across Spain have had their surgeries cancelled due to the amount of pressure that has been put on hospitals during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Pandemic forces Spain’s hospitals to cancel 570,000 surgeries
Thousands of surgeries were cancelled in Spain in 2020. Photo: LOIC VENANCE / AFP

Many patients said that they had been waiting months for their surgeries, only for hospitals to suddenly cancel them without any warning or explanation.

According to a report by the healthcare consulting firm IQVIA, which analysed data from 100 public hospitals in Spain in 2020, there were 18 percent fewer scheduled surgeries carried out compared to 2019.

This percentage is equivalent to 570,000 fewer surgeries than those performed in 2019. Looking at data from the Ministry of Health, this figure is close to the number of people on the surgical waiting list in a normal year.

According to the latest report from the Information System on Waiting Lists in the National Health System, on December 31st, 2020, there were 685,175 patients awaiting surgical intervention.

The consulting firm has calculated the percentage drop in scheduled surgeries month by month since 2020, compared to the same periods in 2019.

What they found was that “despite the fact that hospitals have been progressively recovering the volume of scheduled surgeries with respect to the same months in 2019, the impact suffered during the first wave of Covid-19, shows drops between 40 to 80 percent in scheduled surgeries compared to the equivalent month of 2019, and this has ended up bringing down the global annual figure”.

The report also showed that the drop in scheduled surgical activity, which ranged between five and 25 percent, depending on the hospital, was independent of the percentage of Covid-19 admissions it received – from five to 40 percent.

Director of Healthcare at IQVIA Carles Illa said: “There were hospitals who were seeing what was happening in other centres and closed operating rooms before it was necessary since they all decrease their programmed activities regardless of their number of Covid-19 patients”.

Another fallout from the pandemic on healthcare was the number of delayed diagnoses. Per IQVIA data based on more than one million inhabitants, the number of new diagnoses fell by 25 percent throughout 2020, compared to the number of patients who were diagnosed in 2019.

This means that one in four new diagnoses were not made in 2020, compared to previous years. This percentage would be equivalent to “more than 14 million new diagnoses not detected”, according to the report.

The report also broke the categories down. Oncology for example saw a 13 percent drop in new diagnoses, diseases of the nervous system saw 26 percent fewer diagnoses, and respiratory pathologies saw the greatest drop of 45 percent.

“Patients who have not been diagnosed and treated at the rate they should have been in 2020 will enter into the healthcare system with a much more deteriorated condition, and in some cases, more advanced stages,” the consultancy warned.

READ ALSO: What are the best private healthcare options in Spain for Brits?

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How Spain could stamp out smoking

A fifth of Spain's population smokes on a daily basis. With such high numbers, here's how the country's pulmonologists propose to get smokers to quit.

Spain plans to get people to quit smoking
How Spain plans to get people to stop smoking. Photo: Khalil MAZRAAWI / AFP

For many outsiders, Spain is a nation of smokers. 

The stats from Spain’s Ministry of Health show that 23.3 percent of men smoke every day in Spain, compared with 16.4 percent of women.

For both males and females, the highest number of smokers are aged between 25 and 34, meaning that it’s the younger population who are smoking slightly more than the older generations. 

Spain’s pulmonologists are now pushing for the country’s tobacco laws to be tightened, claiming that reform is needed after the last legislation was approved a decade ago.

READ ALSO: Spain warns against smoking and vaping in public to avoid Covid infections

Why is smoking such a problem in Spain and what is being done about it?

The latest stats from the Spanish Ministry of Health show that lung cancer, often caused by smoking, is the third most frequently diagnosed cancer in Spain, with 29,549 cases diagnosed so far in 2021.

Given these high figures Spain’s Spanish Society of Pulmonology and Thoracic Surgery (SEPAR) has proposed five measures to help get people to stop smoking.

SEPAR points out that every time anti-smoking legislation is reformed and things for smokers made more difficult, the prevalence of smoking decreases.  

Smoking on terraces was banned in some regions during the pandemic. Photo: CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP
  • Price of tobacco to rise in 2022

The first point on their list is to raise the price of tobacco, which must cover all forms, from cigarettes to cigars, through to rolling tobacco, and electronic cigarettes.  

This first measure may soon become a reality as the Spanish government has already predicted that the price of tobacco will rise in 2022, after several years of stagnation.  

It is expected that tobacco will be responsible for almost a third of all special taxes received in 2022, equating to €21.8 billion.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “cheap tobacco” in Spain guarantees “a percentage of smokers above 30 percent”.

In Spain, the price of a pack of tobacco is around €5, which is much cheaper than in other countries. In Australia for example, a pack of tobacco costs around €22, and in the United Kingdom and France, each pack of tobacco costs around €12.4 and €10.5, respectively.

According to Dr. Carlos A. Jiménez Ruiz, pulmonologist and president of the society, the current anti-smoking law has “some deficiencies” that need to be addressed in order to develop legislation that is more effective and efficient, especially with regard to the prevention of tobacco consumption in young people, but also in helping smokers to stop smoking and in protecting the health of non-smokers. 

READ ALSO – Maps: Which beaches in Spain have banned smoking?

Besides increasing the cost of tobacco SEPAR proposes four other measures to get Spain to quit smoking. These include:

  • Banning the consumption of tobacco in public spaces, even outdoors
    During the pandemic, several regions approved a regulation to prohibit smoking on terraces. SEPAR proposes that smoking be prohibited not only in spaces such as terraces but also in sports stadiums, beaches, parks and bullrings, and that fines should be imposed for those who do not comply.

  • Establish generic packaging
    SEPAR also wants Spain to introduce generic packaging, which means no logos and images of the tobacco companies. This measure has also proven to lower the sales of tobacco in countries where it has been implemented, such as Australia and New Zealand. According to the latest statistics from the Australian National Drug Strategy Household Survey around 11.6 percent of adults in Australia smoke daily. 

  • The regulation of other smoking devices
    Despite the fact that all products that burn tobacco such as cigarettes are already regulated, SEPAR believes that it is also necessary to regulate the sale, consumption and advertising of electronic cigarettes. This is because e-cigarettes have become particularly popular among young people. 

  • Promote help for those seeking to quit smoking
    The last proposal is the creation and development of special units in public health departments to help people to stop smoking and to put more funds towards these programmes. 

How does Spain compare with other European countries when it comes to smoking?

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), while Spain does have a high number of smokers there are still several European countries that have more. The European countries with the highest number of smokers are Greece, Bulgaria and Hungary.

The latest European survey from 2020 shows that 42 percent of Greeks claim to be smokers, which is only slightly above Spain. 

On the other side, the European countries with the lowest number of smokers are mainly Nordic countries, such as Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Norway.