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Alberta wait lists for cataract surgery show no immediate end in sight

Eye-opening wait times for cataract surgery in Alberta
WATCH: Albertans are waiting longer than many other Canadians for elective cataract surgery. Global’s Tomasia DaSilva has a look at the lengthy wait times, the criticism and what is being done about them.

Some eye-opening numbers show Albertans continue to wait longer than many other Canadians for cataract surgery.

The wait list for elective cataract surgery has continued to creep up over the years, with many wait times depending on where patients live in the province.

Cataract surgery wait times in Alberta

Statistics from Alberta Health Services (AHS) show the median wait time for cataract surgery was just shy of 17 weeks for 2018-19 — but that varied substantially when it came to which region.

Northern Alberta zones have the shortest wait times, while central zones and Calgary have some of the longest.

Cody Coates/Global News
Cody Coates/Global News Cody Coates/Global News

AHS told Global News the demand for cataract surgery is high in Alberta as the population grows and ages. In some zones, that demand exceeds capacity, which can lead to increased wait times.

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“We continue to focus on reducing wait times. Approximately 1,200 more cataract surgeries were completed in the first three months of 2019-20 compared to the same period in 2018-19. This work is producing results,” AHS officials said in a statement.

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AHS said in recent months, it has seen both decreased average wait times and the number of patients waiting for surgery.

Alberta vs. Canada

Still, other figures show Alberta lags behind the rest of Canada when it comes to meeting the benchmark for cataract surgery.

According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, the national benchmark is set at 16 weeks or 112 days.

In Alberta, only 49 per cent of cataract surgeries are completed within the benchmark time frame, compared to 70 per cent for the rest of Canada.

Barry Davies is one of many Albertans waiting for cataract surgery. The 75-year-old Cochrane resident was initially told he needed surgery a couple of years ago, but that was put off. He is now hoping to get it done sooner, rather than later.

“I’m on what they call the urgent queue, where it’s three to four months as opposed to one or two years,” he said.

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Davies said it’s not to the point of being debilitating right now, but it is definitely affecting his quality of life — especially when it comes to glare.

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“It’s gotten to where I have to wear sunglasses if I’m driving and have the visor down,” Davies added.

Cochrane resident Barry Davies is one of many Albertans waiting for cataract surgery.
Cochrane resident Barry Davies is one of many Albertans waiting for cataract surgery. Tomasia DaSilva

The problem

Dr. Howard Gimbel is a pioneer in cataract surgery. Now retired, he founded the Gimbel Eye Centre.

He told Global News wait lists didn’t use to be a problem when he first started.

“Patients came in for this new procedure and decided when they wanted it done,” Gimbel said. “If they wanted it now, we would do it within a week or two because we had the flexibility to ramp up and meet demand.”

That’s before governments took control of the budget for cataract surgeries, he said.

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“There’s a budget. This is how much we’re going to spend on cataract surgery this year. You physicians, you fight over it,” Gimbel said.

READ MORE: Long wait times for surgery? Depends on where you live

Gimbel added this system is not saving the province money — it’s doing the opposite.

“It’s costing them more money because when the patient is on the waiting list for a year or two, they’re going to be coming in for extra appointments, extra testing,” he said.

The solution?

Ron Kneebone, with the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary, told Global News wait lists are definitely a problem, but solving them involves approaching health care in a different way.

“Rather than waiting until you break and fixing you, [the system] could invest in your health,” Kneebone said.

He added that could be through health maintenance programs or other holistic measures.

What it doesn’t necessarily mean, Kneebone said, is throwing more money at the problem.

“It’s not just about money; it’s also about how you spend it and how you invest that money,” he said.

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Global News reached out to Minister of Health Tyler Shandro for a comment. His office sent this statement: “We campaigned on reducing surgical wait times, including those for cataract surgery and we hope to roll out a plan by the end of the year to do just that.

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“Wait times are unacceptably long, having shot up from 30 weeks to 48 weeks under the previous NDP government. We can and will do better.”

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