July 14, 2024

Holistic Pulse

Healthcare is more important

Canadians face longest health-care wait times on record

2 min read

Despite the valiant efforts of health-care workers across the country, Canada’s health-care system is in shambles. Physicians are burned out, nurses are leaving hospital positions in droves, and provincial governments are shipping patients to the United States for life-saving treatment. As if any more confirmation was needed, a new study suggests patients in Canada now face the longest wait times on record.

The study, which surveys physicians across 12 medical specialities, found that the median wait time between referral from a family doctor to treatment now stands at 27.7 weeks. This wait time is the longest in the survey’s more than 30-year history of tracking delayed access to care, and almost three times the 9.3-week wait patients faced in 1993.

Of course, wait times vary considerably across the country. Notably, all three Maritime provinces report median wait times of more than one year. Even in the province with the shortest waits (Ontario), patients faced a median 21.6 week wait.

We also see significant variation between specialties. Patients faced considerably longer delays for neurosurgery (43.5 weeks) compared to radiotherapy (4.4 weeks). And even here, it’s worth noting provincial variation with the average wait for radiotherapy in British Columbia (9.1 weeks) more than twice the national average. No doubt, this was a key factor in the B.C. government’s decision to ship 4,800 British Columbians across the border to receive care in Washington State.

All together, Canadian patients were waiting for more than an estimated 1.2 million procedures in 2023.

Of course, wait times often have very real consequences. According to physicians, patients are waiting more than 4.5 weeks longer for treatment (after seeing a specialist) than what they consider clinically reasonable. Patients waiting for care can experience physical pain, mental anguish, reduced productivity and, in the worst cases, death.

This is not hyperbole. A separate recent study suggests that at least 3,977 patients died on surgical wait lists in 2022-23 (with an additional 13,055 waiting for a diagnostic scan).

So what’s to be done?

For starters, we can look at other countries that share the goal of universal health care but do not endure the same wait times. In 2020, only 62 per cent of Canadians received treatment within four months. Far less than in Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

The difference?

All these other countries partner with the private sector for the financing and delivery of universal care. They also incentivize the responsible use of resources by expecting patients to share the cost of treatment (with exemptions for vulnerable populations). And they fund hospitals based on activity (instead of “global budgets” like in Canada).

One thing is for certain—the answer does not lie in more funding. In fact, after adjusting for differences in the average age of 30 high-income universal health-care countries, Canada already ranked as the most expensive system for total spending (as a share of the economy) in 2021.

It’s time to change the playbook and opt for new strategies based on proven lessons from abroad. Serve the patient, not the system.


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