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Leader Post: Dying for health reform

SecondStreet.org recently asked the Saskatchewan Health Authority, and 49 other health regions and hospitals in Canada a simple question – how many of your surgeries were cancelled in 2018-19 as the patient had passed away?

What sparked this research project were stories like Laura Hillier’s. The young Ontario teen made headlines in 2016 after her cry for help on social media went viral. During her courageous fight against cancer, she found herself waiting for surgery as the government had only rationed enough funding for five procedures per month.

Sadly, Laura passed away after a seven month wait for surgery. However, her story endures as an enormous neon sign over our nation that continues to flash: “health reform urgently needed.”

Several other stories like Laura’s caused us to ponder – how many patients are passing away each year in Canada while waiting for surgery? We also wondered how many patients spend their final years suffering while waiting for the government to provide surgeries that could improve their quality of life (eg. hip operations, cataract surgery, etc.)?

The majority of hospitals and health regions responded to our query by indicating they don’t track data on patients that die while waiting for surgery. It’s amazing that such a tragic outcome is not documented in our health care system, but then again, one can’t forget that government monopolies generally struggle with providing effective services.

Twenty-one hospitals and health regions did, however, provide us with at least some data. Combined, their figures show that 1,480 patients died while waiting for surgery during the 2018-19 fiscal year. Considering those health bodies cover less than half of Canada’s population, the true figure is likely closer to 4,000 deaths. 

As these cases occurred prior to COVID-19 one should not be surprised if these figures have risen this year. Don’t forget once the pandemic arrived, governments postponed thousands of surgeries.

Government data shows patients died while waiting for everything from potentially life-saving treatment (eg. heart operations) to procedures which could have affected a patient’s quality of life (eg. hip operations, cataract surgery, etc.). Patients died after waiting anywhere from less than a month for surgery to more than eight years. While we don’t know the stories behind the numbers provided to us, many of the figures give pause for concern.

For instance, in Saskatchewan, the government noted 242 patients died while waiting for surgery in 2018-19. Just over half of the procedures were for cataract surgery, but there were also many other procedures on the list – brain, bowel, prostate and urinary system surgery to name a few. The data suggests that approximately half of the province’s waiting lists deaths were cases that saw patients wait longer than the recommended wait time when they passed away.

In Nova Scotia, the government noted there were 25 deaths while patients waited for surgeries that could have potentially saved their lives. In “just over half” of the cases, patients had waited longer than the recommended maximum wait time. In Alberta, 67 per cent of the patients that died while waiting for surgery had passed away after waiting more than a year.

Addressing Canada’s surgical backlog is a complex topic, but one solution is to keep Canada’s public health care system but lift the ban on private clinics providing the same services. This would bring Canada in-line with other developed nations that enjoy both universal health care and shorter waitlists.
More health care choices would not only give patients an alternative to spending their final year(s) suffering or dying prematurely, private clinics would also take some of the pressure off of the public health care system.

Allowing private clinics to provide more services won’t solve all of our health care
system’s problems, but it would certainly give patients more treatment options. As the data shows, many patients could do with more choices.

Colin Craig is the President of SecondStreet.org, a new Canadian think tank. All of the government responses from this report can be viewed on our website.

This column was published in Leader-Post on December 11th, 2020. To see article click here. 

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