COVID-19 pandemic has seen surgery delays persist in Canada, new study shows

Click to play video: 'Long surgery wait times persist despite pandemic backlogs clearing: CIHI'
Long surgery wait times persist despite pandemic backlogs clearing: CIHI
WATCH: Although Canada's pandemic-driven surgery backlog is clearing up, patients are still waiting too long for procedures, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI). – May 10, 2022

Jessica Bailey, who has been desperately waiting for a new kidney for years, tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday.

While her own health complications have kept her off the donor list, the COVID-19 pandemic has only prolonged the wait for the 36-year-old from Saskatoon.

Bailey was finally given the green light by her doctor on Sept. 15 for a transplant. Before a date could be set for her procedure, though, the province suspended all organ transplants. She was devastated.

Click to play video: '‘Catastrophic’:  No clear solution from provinces as surgery backlog crisis continues'
‘Catastrophic’: No clear solution from provinces as surgery backlog crisis continues

“She’s had quite the long run,” said Melanie Bailey about her sister, who has been on dialysis for the past three years.

Story continues below advertisement

“She has no kidney function, so if she doesn’t get dialysis three times a week she could die within 10 days.”

Jessica Bailey is suffering from a chronic kidney disease. Photo supplied by Melanie Bailey

As COVID-19 drags on into its third year, a new study is painting a clearer picture of how the pandemic has strained Canada’s health-care system, delaying medical procedures and forcing a massive backlog of surgeries.

Data released by the Canadian Institute of Health Information (CIHI) on Tuesday showed that across the country, longer wait times for different types of surgeries persisted as a result of COVID-19 restrictions.

Even though the wait times decreased over an 18-month period between April 2020 and September 2021, patients had to experience repeated delays for elective surgeries, such as cataract, hip and joint replacements, as resources were prioritized for more urgent procedures like hip fracture repair, radiation therapy and cancer surgery.

Story continues below advertisement

“We can see there’s been some rebounding in the surgeries and many are back up to near levels that they were pre-pandemic, but we still have the surgeries that weren’t done,” said Tracy Johnson, director of health system analytics at CIHI.

The latest health and medical news emailed to you every Sunday.

“We expect it to be a continuing problem for a little while,” she told Global News.

Click to play video: 'Saskatchewan woman’s kidney surgery delayed because of COVID-19'
Saskatchewan woman’s kidney surgery delayed because of COVID-19

During the first six months of the pandemic, 20 per cent fewer cancer surgeries were performed compared to the pre-pandemic period. But the number of surgeries soared last year.

Meanwhile, patients needing knee and hip replacements continued to experience longer wait times than the recommended time frame of 26 weeks, the CIHI data showed.

“I think we are now starting to catch up again,” said Dr. Shaf Keshavjee, a surgeon at the University Health Network in Toronto.

Story continues below advertisement

Initiatives like additional hours, building extra operating room space and extending the length of operating room days at Toronto General Hospital and Toronto Western have helped increase the surgery volumes.

Despite the increased efforts, Keshavjee estimates it will take several months to get back on track.

“Even if we’re doing 110 or 115 per cent of the usual run rate, you can see it’s going to take us 10 to 20 months to catch up on the backlog,” he told Global News.

Health risks

The delays have only increased the health risks for patients.

For Bailey, getting COVID-19 on top of a chronic kidney disease has deteriorated her condition even more, making her “extra sick,” her sister said, with the added coughing and body aches.

Story continues below advertisement

A study published in the International Journal of Cancer in November 2021 suggested pandemic-associated delays in Canada could result in about 20,000 additional deaths from cancer over the next decade.

Another more recent study published in the CMAJ in March showed that cancer surgery delays brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic could affect long-term survival for many patients.

In a July 2021 survey published in the Lancet medical journal, 74 per cent of cancer patients in Canada reported that the delays had a major impact on their mental and emotional well-being.

Click to play video: 'COVID-19 staffing issues in health-care leading to surgery delays'
COVID-19 staffing issues in health-care leading to surgery delays

According to CIHI data released last year, almost 600,000 fewer surgeries were performed between March 2020 and December 2021 compared with pre-pandemic numbers for 2019.

Story continues below advertisement

The backlog is not only impacting vulnerable patients waiting for treatment but is also increasing the burden on health-care workers, already struggling with burnout after two years of fighting the pandemic.

Most provinces are still grappling with staffing issues, health-care workers say.

“We’ve been working so hard, we’re short-staffed and a lot of people are tired and now we’re asking them to do more,” said Keshavjee.

Meanwhile, amid a sixth wave, “hospitals are still being hammered” with COVID-19 patients, said CIHI’s Johnson.

Click to play video: 'Canadians turn to medical tourism amid surgical backlog'
Canadians turn to medical tourism amid surgical backlog

At the end of March, 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.

Ontario’s share of the recent one-time federal funding, announced on March 25, is $775.5 million, the province told Global News. Newfoundland and Labrador will receive approximately $27 million. Saskatchewan’s portion is roughly $62 million.

Story continues below advertisement

However, not a single province could tell Global News last month what their plans for the money are as of yet.

Going forward, better planning and more resources need to be diverted to managing the surgical patients, said Keshavjee.

“We have the spaces to do it, we have the surgeons to do it and I think that we need to sort of organize the system to ramp up across the board.”

— with files from Global News’ Irelyne Lavery 

Sponsored content