More Canadians getting surgery, but wait times haven’t budged, report says

The commission that vets cases of euthanasia in the Netherlands says cases rose by 13 per cent in the Netherlands in 2012 from 2011, the sixth consecutive year of increases. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GettyImages

TORONTO — Doctors treated more Canadians in need of surgery in 2012 than any other year, but wait times haven’t improved despite a nearly decade-old plan provinces brokered in an effort to reduce the backlog, a new report says.

While Canada’s health care workers have whittled away at the wait list, an aging population riddled with obesity and other chronic conditions is triggering growing demand for these surgeries and specialized treatment.

These are the findings of a comprehensive Canadian Institute for Health Information study released Tuesday with a national scope that spans three years of trends.

In 2012, more than 538,000 Canadians had what’s called a priority procedure — five surgeries studied in this report. It’s an impressive feat of nearly 21,000 more surgeries than in 2011.

More Canadian patients may have been treated but the wait times Canadians currently follow haven’t changed.

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“Hospitals across Canada continue to provide more procedures to more patients,” CIHI’s Jeremy Veillard, vice president of research and analysis, said in a statement.

“At the same time, this growing volume presents a challenge to efforts to reduce the time that each individual patient waits.”

Provinces promise to tackle wait times in 2004

It’s been almost 10 years since provincial governments teamed up in 2004 in an attempt to shave off wait times. They targeted five priority surgeries — radiation therapy, cardiac bypass surgery, hip and knee replacements, hip fracture repair and cataract surgery — and set benchmarks for average wait times for each procedure.

Nearly a decade later, data shows that radiation therapy is the only procedure in which 90 per cent of patients are treated within the allotted wait time of 28 days.

Ninety-seven per cent of patients who needed radiation therapy received it within the recommended period.

CIHI was able to compare wait times from year to year for the first time because each province reported these numbers since 2010.

Take a look at an interactive map documenting wait times from province to province.

A steep rise in the need for surgery and specialized treatment

More Canadians than before are turning to joint replacement surgery for the hip and knee.

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Between 2010 to 2012, for example, the number of these surgeries in Canada increased by 15 per cent and came with a more than $100-million price tag.

This increase in treating patients wasn’t enough to cut down on wait times – the wait times grew by four per cent for either procedure.

“Why are increased volumes not resulting in better wait times? The data suggests that demand is rising at a rate that is outpacing the ability of health systems to keep up,” the report explains.

For starters, seniors are the fastest growing demographic in Canada, and the most common group in need of joint replacement. But an aging population had little to do with this spike in surgery: other conditions from obesity to osteoarthritis are inflicting more and more Canadians.

These Canadians dealing with chronic pain from their ailments are forced to consider surgery.

Wait times vary from province to province

Some provinces have taken the initiative to tackle the bottlenecking of surgeries.

CIHI’s map showcases the percentage of patients receiving care within the recommended wait times by province and procedure.

Issues such as number of surgeons or amount of space could be causing the backlog in some regions. In Newfoundland, joint replacement wait times eased up because of the province pouring funding into the cause in 2012.

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Albertans also fared better in this category. That’s because the province reduced the length of time patients needed to stay in hospital from five days to four. Officials also created space to perform 3,000 more procedures in 2011.

On a global scope, Canada’s patients are waiting longer than most of their counterparts in first world countries, the report notes.

It points to a 2010 Commonwealth Fund Survey of 11 countries: Canada had the highest proportion – 25 per cent – of patients reporting a wait of more than four months for elective surgery.

The United Kingdom followed at 21 per cent. On the other end was Germany with a zero per cent wait time and the United States at seven per cent.

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