Long wait times for surgery? Depends on where you live

Wait times for medical procedures can vary greatly depending on where you live in Canada. John Lehman / The Canadian Press

How long you’ll wait to get cataract surgery or a hip replacement could vary widely depending on where you live, according to a new report examining healthcare wait times in Canada.

The report released Tuesday by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) examines patient wait times for five priority medical procedures in 2016, compared with the previous four years.

READ MORE: Medical wait times have nearly doubled in the last 20 years

Overall in Canada, three out of four patients get the care they need within benchmark wait times — the amount of time considered appropriate to wait for a procedure. From 2012 to 2016, wait times for hip fracture repair improved, radiation therapy wait times remained consistent, while patients waited longer for cataract surgery.

However, taking a closer look province-by-province revealed some glaring gaps in care.

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“There’s no one province that does great on everything and again there’s no one province that is absolutely worst at everything either,” said Jennifer D’Silva, manager of emerging issues at CIHI.

READ MORE: Albertans waiting longer for cataract surgery than 4 years ago: report 

Wait times were compared for hip or knee replacement, cataract surgery, hip fracture repair and cancer radiation therapy.

“Some of the things that can cause an increase in wait times can be a decrease in specialists or availability of the operating room or post-surgical beds and obviously patient demographics as well.”

In Manitoba, only 34 per cent of patients got cataract surgery within the recommended time frame. But over in P.E.I. nearly all patients (92 per cent) received cataract surgery within the recommended time frame.

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In Nova Scotia, only 38 per cent of patients got knee replacement surgery within the recommended time frame, while in Ontario 81 per cent of patients received care within the benchmark wait time.

Nova Scotia also fared the worst when it came to hip replacement surgery, with 56 per cent undergoing the procedure within the recommended time frame.

READ MORE: How much is your doctor making? A look at Canada’s physician workforce

Last month, Nova Scotia auditor general Michael Pickup sounded an alarm over the wait times. People in the province needing a hip replacement can expect to wait 750 days while a knee replacement can take 800 days, a number far above the national average of 182 days.

“Knees and hips are a huge, huge area impacting so many people and the quality of life,” said Pickup.

Brett Skinner, founder of the Canadian Health Policy Institute, agrees.

“The report emphasizes how well our system is doing in reaching certain benchmarks for various procedures,” said Skinner.

“We see figures like knee replacement — 73 per cent of patients (nationally) are within the benchmark period — what’s the flipside of that? That 27 per cent of patients are not within the benchmark.”

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Considering there’s an average of 60,000 knee replacements annually in Canada, that means more than 15,000 Canadians had to wait more than the benchmark 182 days.


READ MORE: Here’s how long Canadians are waiting for surgery across the country

“Another part of this is whether the benchmarks themselves are acceptable,” said Skinner.

Not a single province reached the 90 per cent benchmark in all five categories.

Canada’s healthcare needs are expected to increase as the population ages: There are now more people over the age of 65 than there are under the age of 14.

“We know that as our society as a whole gets older there’s going to be additional pressures on the system. It’s already occurring,” said Skinner.

WATCH: Health ministers discuss if healthcare funding should be based on aging population

Click to play video: 'Health ministers discuss if healthcare funding should be based on aging population' Health ministers discuss if healthcare funding should be based on aging population
Health ministers discuss if healthcare funding should be based on aging population – Oct 17, 2016

Canada already has some of the longest wait times to see doctors and specialists when compared to countries such as Australia and the United Kingdom, research has shown.

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“With the pressures already being reflected in our system and knowing that that’s only bound to get worse over time as the population continues to age … we need to move discussion to action as quickly as possible,” said Skinner.

READ MORE: 3.4 million Canadians had unmet health care needs in 2014: report

One objective of the CIHI report is to have provinces identify where they lag, and learn from other province’s strengths.

“Struggling to keep wait times down isn’t just an issue in one jurisdiction or province, it’s something that Canada and many Western countries struggle with,” said D’Silva.

“Learning from each other as far as seeing what’s working well in other provinces and see if that’s something that would be adaptable to their province is something that we would hope to come out of this report.”

With files from Natasha Pace

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