Quebec hopes to reduce surgery backlog to pre-pandemic levels by March 2023

A file photo of a healthcare worker pushing a stretcher. Getty Images

Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé outlined the province’s strategy to clear the backlog of surgeries that have been delayed or cancelled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have about 146,000 surgeries in waiting,” Dubé said during a press conference on Thursday.

“That’s about 30,000 more than we had at the start of the pandemic.”

The goal is to bring down surgery waitlists and wait times to below pre-pandemic levels by March 2023 by increasing surgical activity, starting with those who have been waiting the longest.

Of the 146,000, a little less than 100,000 have been waiting for less than six months.

Dr. Lucie Opatrny, associate deputy health minister responsible for hospital services, said surgeries have increased in the last few weeks to 90 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.

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She credited the several agreements that were negotiated with private clinics to take on overdue surgeries for the uptick.

Even as COVID-19 hospitalizations have been dropping, easing pressure on the health network, the government is giving itself until October to re-establish a level of surgical activity of 100 per cent.

That is the equivalent of roughly 35,000 surgeries a month, according to Opatrny. The next benchmark is to bump up surgical activity to 115 per cent, or 40,000 surgeries per month over the next year to Oct. 2022.

“Those 5,000 extra surgeries per month will allow us to reduce the waiting list below pre-pandemic levels by March 2023,” Opatrny said.

Meanwhile, Dubé said that while 18 months might seem far away, it was important to set realistic goals.

“We’re emerging from a pandemic and our health network is tired,” he said. “Everyone agrees that our health-care workers need to rest this summer, there is a consensus on that and to work otherwise would not be respectful of those who have worked since the last year.”

Dubé also pointed out that the province’s mass vaccination campaign isn’t over yet and is why ramping up surgeries won’t really begin until the fall.

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“We still have six million people to vaccinate with a second dose,” he said. “That’s also part of our reality, we have to finish vaccinating.”

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The government is also taking into account people who are waiting for consults but are not on the official waiting list.

“We know that there’s this invisible list that can generate thousands of additional surgeries,” he said.

Opatrny explained the invisible list as a 24-per cent drop in requests to be put on a surgical waiting list during the pandemic compared to a non-pandemic year, so an increase in new surgeries is expected.

Dubé has tasked Opatrny to lead discussions with partners and unions over the summer to find innovative solutions to decrease the waitlist.

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More specifically, Opatrny will be looking at ways to optimize and increase the use of operating rooms and revising the structure of surgical teams, amongst other things.

Earlier in the day, Québec solidaire spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois said that for the plan to be successful, the government will have to address the issue of staffing in the health network.

He insisted working conditions will have to be drastically improved in order to attract the necessary workers.

— With files from The Canadian Press

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