Slippery season: University of Calgary researchers publish study that could help lower surgery wait times

CALGARY — It’s no surprise that icy surfaces can lead to more slip and fall injuries, but without research based evidence, it’s just a hunch.

At the end of February, University of Calgary researchers published a study in the peer-reviewed journal Injury and they turned their hunch into tangible data. They’re hoping hospitals can use the information to better prepare for, or even prevent, the influx in emergency room visits when the weather turns bad.

Orthopedic surgeon and University of Calgary clinical research assistant professor Dr. Neil White said he noticed the correlation between weather and demand for orthopedic surgery when he was a medical student completing his residency.

“I would look out of my window and I would know what kind of day I was going to have”, he said, “and it seemed so obvious to me that our volumes changed so much at different times of the year, yet we had a linear distribution of resources.”

In 2018, he and his team began their study — hoping that with research-based evidence, they could create some change in how hospitals allocate resources. They started by collecting data from 2008 to 2018 of unscheduled orthopedic trauma. They knew that ice was a strong predictor of slip and fall injuries, but they needed help understanding how weather patterns play a role in forming ice on the ground.

That’s when research student Martina Vergouwen reached out to CTV Calgary’s chief meteorologist, David Spence. Vergouwen remembered Spence from when he visited her grade five class for a ‘Weather in the Classroom’ presentation.

Calgary weather June 20

“I found his e-mail and asked him if he was willing to talk with us and help us build an ice model”, she said.

“Calgary is one of the few places in the country that’s really prone to icing, freezing, and thawing thanks to our chinooks”, Spence explained, “In the shoulder season, like spring and fall, you don’t even need a chinook. It can be warm enough during the day (for snow to melt), and then cold enough at night for ice to develop.”

Spence explained to the team that pavement temperature is more important than air temperature when predicting ice formation, and that’s what the researchers used to create their predictive ice model.

Their findings weren’t surprising. Ice for three consecutive days and fresh snow was predictive of a 37 per cent increase in overall volume of orthopedic trauma surgery. This led to longer patient wait times, and more after-hours surgery, especially in the months of December and July.

“We know that we have a higher complication rate (with after-hours surgery)”, said White, “People are tired, and surgeons may be on hour 18 or 19 of their shift.”

White said his team’s findings could be used in two ways to alleviate the burden on operating room staff: re-distributing existing resources and prevention.

“Not only are there predictable busy times of the year, there are predictable quiet times as well”, White said, “So we could do more elective surgery in October, for example, and free up time for more trauma surgery in December.”

White said prevention could play a crucial role in reducing emergency room visits for slip and fall injuries.

“We’re using our data to make a predictive model and calling this the ‘Alberta Slip and Fall Index’”, White added, “Once we have that, we can warn the public of when the risk of slip and fall injuries are high.”

Vergouwen said it’s exciting to see where their study could take them, “It really falls in line with what I’ve learned in nursing school. How can we get ahead of this problem before we even see the patients in hospital?”

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