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‘Living in pain’: Canadians travel across the world to avoid surgery backlog

Click to play video: 'Canadians turn to medical tourism due to surgical backlog'
Canadians turn to medical tourism due to surgical backlog
WATCH: Canadians turn to medical tourism due to surgical backlog – Apr 21, 2022

A surgery backlog exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic has steered some Canadians thousands of miles away from home to get life-changing procedures done without the wait.

“I had to do something,” Patricia Rush, 60, who travelled from her home in Alberta to Lithuania for a hip replacement, told Global News.

After being sent for an MRI in May of 2020, Rush was told she had a fibril tear in her hip with a three-quarter cyst inside.

“I was bone on bone in my hip,” she said. “The pain was excruciating. When I would walk a certain way I would get a sharp pain in my leg.”

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To get around, Rush used a walker.

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“My life was cut to next to nothing because I was in so much pain,” she said. “What do people do when they’re in this kind of pain? They must be suicidal and depressed.”

Before taking matters into her own hands, Rush visited a hip and knee clinic in Alberta where she was told the wait time would be 15 months for surgery.

Now three years later, Rush has yet to hear back from them.

Patricia Rush
60-year-old Patricia Rush travelled from her home in Alberta to Lithuania for a hip replacement. Photo Supplied

When researching her options outside of the country, Rush spoke with friends who previously journeyed to Lithuania for private surgeries.

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“They answered all of my questions,” she said.

Rush had a total hip replacement at Lithuania’s Nord Clinic on Oct. 11, 2021, one month after reaching out for the surgery.

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Including airfare, Rush spent $16,000 on the procedure. She also looked into private surgery options in Montreal and the U.S. but they were notably pricier.

“Thankfully I can afford to go to Lithuania but I know a lot of people who can’t afford to go there,” she said.

“I am so happy. I am in next to no pain,” Rush added, noting she’s been able to do yoga and ride a bike again.

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Seeking out treatment in this way is known as “medical tourism.”

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When considering travelling abroad for medical care, it is important to keep in mind hospital accreditation and licensing standards and drug regulations among other things, Canada’s federal government says.

Read more: Weight-loss tourism costing Alberta taxpayers thousands to fix medical mistakes

Last year, Canadians faced a median waiting time of 25.6 weeks between referral from a general practitioner and receipt of the treatment, according to a report from the Fraser Institute.

“This year’s wait time is the longest wait time recorded in this survey’s history and is 175 per cent longer than in 1993, when it was just 9.3 weeks,” the report said.

Although some Canadians are leaving the country for surgery, the Medical Tourism Association has ranked the country as the top destination in the world for medical tourism. But some experts say the backlogs show Canada’s health system isn’t meeting the needs of its own people.

“I think when we hear about Canadians going overseas to seek medical treatment, it again is a reminder that our universal health-care system is no longer functioning adequately to meet the needs of Canadians,” said Dr. Katharine Smart, president of the Canadian Medical Association.

“The fact that people feel they need to go to the United States or Mexico or Southeast Asia or somewhere else in the world to have their surgery or other medical conditions dealt with, I think reminds us that our system is failing.”

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Read more: Manitoba man travels overseas for knee surgery, bills province for cost

As an avid walker with a healthy medical history, 63-year-old Maureen Johnston initially ignored the slight pain she began feeling on an uphill trek in 2016.

More than a year later, when the pain became constant, Johnston was diagnosed with moderate osteoarthritis in both of her hips and was referred to an orthopedic specialist in Edmonton.

“When you’re in pain, first of all, you can’t tie your shoe and then it goes to getting in and out of a vehicle that becomes very difficult,” she told Global News. “It shapes every part of your life.”

Another year later, amidst the pandemic, Johnston received a call and was told the wait time for surgery would be around 18 to 24 months.

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“I’ve never had many medical issues in my lifetime and I was so disappointed that when I did need a surgery and medical assistance, it wasn’t there,” she said. “I think my husband got tired of seeing me limping around the house and he started looking at options.”

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That’s how they found Nord Clinic in Lithuania. Through the clinic, Johnston was able to connect with fellow Canadians who also made the journey for surgery to learn what the process was like before going through it herself.

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On Oct. 21, 2021, Johnston received a full hip replacement at the Lithuanian clinic. Excluding airfare, she spent $14,000 on the procedure. The clinic provided transportation to and from the airport.

“It dips into your retirement savings, but what’s the point of having them if you’re living in pain. The treatment was beyond words,” Johnston said. “Within a couple of weeks, I was able to walk up to three kilometres. It was very good therapy: the little cobblestone streets of Vilnius, Lithuania.”

Maureen Johnston
Provided by Maureen Johnston. Provided by Maureen Johnston

“Now I’ve got another hip that isn’t the greatest, but I’m hoping to get a little bit more mileage out of it before I start down that road,” she said.

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Lisa Salamon, an emergency physician at a Toronto hospital, has been dealing with the effects of Canada’s COVID surgery backlog directly in the ER.

Read more: Over half a million fewer surgeries have been performed since start of COVID-19: report

She’s seen patients waiting for a referral to a specialist or testing visit the hospital with advanced diseases because of how long it takes to get an appointment.

“I’ve seen, more than ever, pretty advanced cancers that I’ve actually had to diagnose myself in the emergency department,” the doctor of 15 years told Global News. “Recently, I had a patient come in with blood in their urine and we ordered some imaging and it turned out the patient had kidney cancer.”

“It does impact their life and their life expectancy.”

Read more: Ottawa pledging $2B for pandemic surgery delays, warns universal health care ‘at risk’

At the end of March, Canada’s health minister, Jean-Yves Duclos, said the country’s universal health-care system is “at risk” and announced a $2-billion pledge to help fix the surgery backlog.

“These delays are a burden that can be very hard to bear for the affected patients, their families and their loved ones, as well as for the health-care workers caring for them,” Duclos said.

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CMA’s Smart called the backlogs in Canada “deeply worrisome” and hopes the country’s leaders do more.

“I think it needs to be part of the dialogue,” she said. “I think we need to wake up to the fact that our health-care system is in crisis and we need our politicians to cure that call for help and to take action.”

– With files from The Canadian Press

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