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Median wait times for psychiatric treatment in Canada drop to 16.8 weeks in 2009

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Release Date: November 17, 2009

CALGARY, AB-Canadians seeking psychiatric treatment are waiting less time in 2009 than they did in 2008, according to research on health care waiting times published by the Fraser Institute, one of Canada's leading economic think-tanks.

The national median wait time for Canadians seeking psychiatric treatment fell nearly two weeks, to 16.8 weeks in 2009 from 18.6 weeks in 2008. This decrease has led to the shortest total median wait time for psychiatric treatment ever measured by the Fraser Institute since the launch of its annual psychiatry waiting list survey in 2003.

"While Canadians are facing shorter total waits for psychiatric services than they have over the past seven years, the delay for treatment in 2009 still far exceeds what physicians would consider clinically reasonable," said Nadeem Esmail, Fraser Institute Director of Health System Performance Studies and author of the 19th annual edition of Waiting Your Turn: Hospital Waiting Lists in Canada .

The psychiatric wait times report is contained as an appendix in Waiting Your Turn: Hospital Waiting Lists in Canada , the Institute's annual survey of waiting times for medically necessary health care. The survey measures the median time a patient waits to begin a treatment program after being referred by a general practitioner to a psychiatric specialist.

The shortest overall waiting times were recorded in Prince Edward Island (12 weeks), British Columbia (13.6 weeks) and Ontario (14.9).

The longest total wait times were recorded in Alberta (25.2 weeks), Newfoundland & Labrador (29.5 weeks), and New Brunswick (30 weeks).

Manitoba, which had the lowest median psychiatric wait times in 2008 (15.8 weeks), saw wait times increase to 17.8 weeks, while New Brunswick experienced the biggest hike among all provinces, with wait times increasing seven weeks compared to 2008.

The study also shows that the time spent waiting for treatment after an appointment with a specialist was longer than the wait to see a specialist after GP referral. Newfoundland & Labrador had the longest wait for treatment after seeing a specialist (21.5 weeks), followed by New Brunswick (20 weeks), Nova Scotia (15.4 weeks), then Alberta (13.2 weeks).

Prince Edward Island had the shortest wait time between seeing a specialist and receiving treatment (6 weeks), followed by British Columbia (7.6 weeks), then Ontario (8.9 weeks). Across Canada, the median wait time was 9.8 weeks

Among specific treatments surveyed, patients waited longest to enter a sleep disorders program (18.5 weeks, up from 15.7 weeks in 2008) or a housing program (13.3 weeks, down from 21.3 weeks in 2008). Wait times were shortest for pharmacotherapy (4.1 weeks, down from 4.2 weeks in 2008), and admission to a day program (6.1 weeks, down from 6.6 weeks in 2008).

Physicians were also asked to provide clinically reasonable waiting times for various psychiatric treatments. Generally, they reported wait times substantially shorter than what patients are actually waiting. In 93 per cent of cases, the actual median waiting time for treatment is greater than the clinically reasonable median waiting time. Nationally, the actual waiting time is nearly 150 per cent longer than what specialists feel is appropriate.

The first wait, the wait to see a specialist after referral on an urgent or elective basis, also shows variation among provinces. The median waiting time to see a psychiatrist on an urgent basis was two weeks for Canada as a whole, ranging from one week in Newfoundland & Labrador to 2.5 weeks in Saskatchewan and 2.3 weeks in Alberta.

The waiting time for referrals on an elective basis for Canada as a whole was 7.0 weeks. The longest waiting time for elective referrals was in Alberta (12 weeks), followed by New Brunswick (10 weeks), and Quebec and Newfoundland & Labrador at eight weeks. The shortest wait for an elective referral was in Saskatchewan (5.5 weeks), followed by British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island at six weeks.

"Canadian governments have been fixated on defining wait time benchmarks and implementing care guarantees for select physical treatments, yet people suffering from mental illness are enduring longer waits for treatment than those with physical ailments," Esmail said.  

"Despite large increases in health spending, the health care system is still clearly failing patients in terms of delivering timely access to medical services."



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