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SUN COLUMN: Postponed surgeries have had tragic consequences

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SecondStreet.org asked provincial governments across Canada an important health care question: How many surgeries and procedures did you postpone after COVID-19 emerged

While nine provinces were able to give us an answer, one surprisingly replied that it had no idea.

As many readers will know, shortly after COVID-19 arose in Canada, provincial governments informed the public that they were postponing “non-urgent” procedures. The public was told that important procedures such as heart operations would still proceed, but less urgent procedures such as hip operations would be placed on hold.

Ontario’s Minister of Health indicated this was being done to “preserve capacity”. Alberta’s Chief Medical officer noted something similar – to “redeploy” staff. Across the country we saw similar announcements.

Despite what the public was told, media have broken many tragic stories involving these postponed surgeries.

Alberta patient Jerry Dunham was informed, after six months of waiting, that his pacemaker surgery was postponed due to COVID-19. Two months later, he passed away, leaving behind two young children.

In Ontario, the government conceded that upwards of 35 cardiac patients had died after having their surgeries postponed.

In Quebec, actress Rosine Chouinard-Chauveau passed away after having her surgery postponed. She was just 28 years old.

Stories such as these led SecondStreet.org to reach out to provinces for data.

Nine provinces indicated they had postponed 205,549 surgeries and procedures since COVID emerged. A tenth, Ontario, simply told us they had “no records.” Incredibly, their enormous health bureaucracy had apparently not bothered to estimate the size of their problem and report it to the minister.

Thankfully the Canadian Medical Association Journal has examined Ontario’s situation, estimating there have been 148,364 postponed surgeries in the province.

Including their estimate, postponed surgeries and procedures have affected more than 353,913 patients in Canada. For perspective, that’s roughly half the population of Winnipeg.

Make no mistake, it’s quite easy to critique government decisions to postpone surgeries from the sidelines. We can’t forget that many of these decisions were made back in March when the world was scrambling to understand the severity of the outbreak.

But we can’t forget that governments are at least partially to blame for the predicament. Our health care systems had to “redeploy” staff and resources in part because our state-run health care system has fewer hospital beds and doctors (per capita) than other countries with universal health care.

This problem is not due to a lack of funding. As Dr. Shawn Whatley notes in his book, When Politics Comes Before Patients, “Canada spends more on healthcare than most other countries”.

Canada suffers from both mismanagement and a lack of private options. Countries which outperform Canada – Australia, Norway and New Zealand to name a few – have both universal public health care, but also private options.

For the sake of patients, health care reform should be a top priority once COVID is under control.

In the meantime, we would be well served if governments tracked postponed surgeries and patient suffering half as well as they have COVID statistics. Immediate, independent reviews of such decisions could help determine what went wrong and what went right.

It would be tragic to see more patients suffer the same fate as Jerry Dunham and Rosine Chouinard-Chauveau in the future.

 

Colin Craig is the President of SecondStreet.org, a new Canadian think tank.

This column was published by Sun newspapers on March 11, 2021.

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