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Sun News Column: Waiting list deaths more common than we think

In 2019, 72-year-old Quebec patient Michel Houle was told he needed heart surgery within two to three months.

Houle lasted five months on a government waiting list, but sadly he passed away. A few months after his death the government finally phoned him to schedule his surgery.

Tragic stories like this led to conduct some ground-breaking research into just how many Canadians die while waiting for surgery each year.

We wanted to know if stories like Houle’s are a rare occurrence – as some claim – or if they’re more common than we think. asked 50 hospitals and health regions in Canada for data on the number of surgeries during the 2018-19 fiscal year that were cancelled as the patient had passed away.

Most hospitals and health regions told us they simply don’t track data on patient deaths while waiting for surgery. Overall, the data was quite atrocious, especially considering we’re talking about the well-being of patients.

21 hospitals and health regions did respond to our requests with varying amounts of data, however. Their records showed 1,480 patients died while waiting for surgery in 2018-19. However, as those health bodies represent less than half of Canada’s population, the true figure is likely closer to 4,000.

The data provided to showed that patients were waiting for a variety of procedures when they passed away. Some were waiting for potentially life-saving procedures (eg. heart operations) while others were waiting for procedures that could have improved their quality of life (eg. hip operations).

The data showed patients had been waiting anywhere from less than a month when they passed away to more than eight years. In many cases, patients waited longer than the medically recommended time period. For instance, 65 per cent of the patients who passed away while waiting for surgery in Nova Scotia had been waiting longer than the recommended period.

Just imagine spending your final few years living in pain or being confined to your home.

As our data is from a period before COVID, one could reasonably assume these numbers have only gotten worse; after the pandemic hit Canada, governments postponed thousands of procedures as part of efforts to “prevent the spread.”

Addressing Canada’s surgical backlog is a complex topic, but two solutions we identified, include:

First, governments could vastly improve the data they track and disclose when it comes to patient suffering in the health care system. It’s quite astounding that governments make businesses file reports on minor workplace accidents that result in employees receiving so much as a bruise. Yet, at the same time most governments don’t track, and certainly don’t proactively disclose, information on patients dying or suffering while waiting for surgery.

Doing so could help researchers learn more about patient suffering and could also help policy makers address problem areas.

Second, governments could stop forcing patients to languish on waiting lists, while also forbidding them from seeking treatment at private clinics. The government could keep our public health care system but allow private clinics to provide the same services – like every other developed country with waitlists that are shorter than Canada’s. This could ease the pressure on the public system while helping to improve patient health in Canada.

Clearly, stories of patients dying while waiting for surgery is well beyond anecdotal.

Colin Craig is the President of, a new Canadian think tank. All of the government responses cited in this column can be viewed on our website.

This column was published in Sun News Columns on December 20th, 2020. To see article click here. 

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