Italy's Hospital Backlog Risks 20,000 New Deaths

In a intensive care unit in a hospital, Bologna, Italy
In a intensive care unit in a hospital, Bologna, Italy
Alessio Perrone

MILAN — In March, the first coronavirus outbreak in the West put Italy's hospitals under unprecedented strain, with health authorities facing what they described as a "tsunami" of new patients. As intensive care units filled with COVID-19 patients, hospitals scrambled to convert other wards, freeing up corridors and operating theaters for patients of the potentially fatal virus. All non-essential surgeries and appointments were canceled.

Today, the outbreak has been gradually brought under control, with the number of coronavirus patients in Italy in need of intensive care below 500 for the first time since early March. Still, hospitals are far from returning to a "normal" pre-coronavirus life. Indeed, the huge backlog of postponed surgeries and appointments means that a new crisis looms large, according to a new study by consultancy firm Nomisma, while a top health care official warned of the risk of 20,000 deaths if urgent surgeries cannot be performed in time.

Since early March, hospitals in Italy postponed some 75% of all surgical operations, reports state broadcaster Rai News. That means hospitals now have some 410,000 surgeries to catch up with. One example of the backlog, according to the Nomisma study: For a coronary bypass or coronary angioplasty operation, waiting times that are usually around 20-25 days are now four months long, the authors of the report told the Quotidiano Sanità, a news website specializing in health care.

The number of postponed checkups and appointments stands at 11 million.

Carlo Palermo, national secretary of a national union of health professionals, confirmed to La Stampa that waiting times will be long. "Considering that our hospitals perform four million surgeries a year, and that we will only be able to increase our activity by 20%, at most, it will take at least six months to go through the backlog."

COVID-19 serological tests in Milan — Photo: Marco Passaro/IPA/ZUMA

"Postponing check-ups and surgeries in operating theaters for so long could cost us 20,000 deaths by the end of the year for cardiovascular diseases alone," Palermo said. Specialist clinics — which have remained closed or only partly open during the outbreak — are also facing a huge backlog. Antonio Magi, the president of the union of specialist clinics' staff, puts the number of postponed checks and appointments at 11 million.

This adds to existing pressures. Medical staff have already canceled their holidays and worked overtime to respond to one of the world's most severe coronavirus outbreaks, which has cost the lives of more than 33,000 Italians, including at least 165 doctors. The coronavirus also forces hospitals to work more carefully around bookings and sanitizing equipment. The way out, for some, would be to hire more doctors and nurses, perhaps on six-month contracts. Even then, it's unlikely the medical staff that have been hailed as heroes during the outbreak will be able to go any sun this summer.

Consider that even non life-threatening conditions need care as quickly as possible. Right now, for example, for a hip transplant, waiting times have doubled to at least six months.

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A Mother In Spain Denied Child Custody Because She Lives In Rural Area

A court in Spain usurps custody of the one-year-old boy living with his mother in the "deep" part of the Galicia region, forced to instead live with his father in the southern city of Marbella, which the judge says is "cosmopolitan" with good schools and medical care. Women's rights groups have taken up the mother's case.

A child in Galician countryside

Laure Gautherin

A Spanish court has ordered the withdrawal of a mother's custody of her one-year-old boy because she is living in the countryside in northwestern Spain, where the judge says the child won't have "opportunities for the proper development of his personality."

The case, reported Monday in La Voz de Galicia, has sparked outrage from a women's rights association but has also set off reactions from politicians of different stripes across the province of Galicia, defending the values of rural life.

Judge María Belén Ureña Carazo, of the family court of Marbella, a city on the southern coast of 141,000 people, has ordered the toddler to stay with father who lives in the city rather than with his mother because she was living in "deep Galicia" where the child would lack opportunities to "grow up in a happy environment."

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - October 25, 2021

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - Monday 25 October, 2021

La Voz de Galicia

Better in a "cosmopolitan" city?

The judge said Marbella, where the father lives, was a "cosmopolitan city" with "a good hospital" as well as "all kinds of schools" and thus provided a better environment for the child to thrive.

The mother has submitted a formal complaint to the General Council of the Judiciary that the family court magistrate had acted with "absolute contempt," her lawyer told La Voz de Galicia.

The mother quickly accumulated support from local politicians and civic organizations. The Clara Campoamor association described the judge's arguments as offensive, intolerable and typical of "an ignorant person who has not traveled much."

The Xunta de Galicia, the regional government, has addressed the case, saying that any place in Galicia meets the conditions to educate a minor. The Socialist party politician Pablo Arangüena tweeted that "it would not hurt part of the judiciary to spend a summer in Galicia."

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