Albertans endure some of the longest health-care waits in Canada

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Appeared in the Calgary Sun, December 20, 2023
Albertans endure some of the longest health-care waits in Canada

Last week, the president of the Alberta Medical Association sounded the alarm about Alberta hospital wait times, saying they’re as “as bad as we’ve seen it in 25 years.”

But in fact, it’s worse than that.

According to a new study, in Alberta the median wait in 2023 between a family doctor’s referral for a specialist appointment and receipt of treatment was 33.5 weeks—that’s the longest total median wait outside the Maritime provinces and almost six weeks longer than the national median wait (27.7 weeks). And Albertans now wait 23 weeks longer than they did in 1993 when the wait for care was only 10.5 weeks.

Alberta’s long wait times come despite high levels of health-care spending. The province ranked second-highest on health-care spending per person (adjusted for age and sex) among provinces in 2021, the latest year of available data. In 2023/24, health-care spending will consume a projected 41.2 per cent of Alberta’s program spending.

Moreover, Canada itself is a relatively high spender among universal health-care countries, yet ranks poorly on the availability of hospital beds, doctors and key diagnostic technologies such as MRIs. In other words, Alberta is a comparatively high spender and poor performer in an already high spending and poorly performing country.

Of course, there are serious consequences from lengthy delays for medically necessary care including ongoing pain, worsening of health outcomes and psychological distress. Unfortunately for Albertans, the median wait for treatment after seeing a specialist was almost two months longer than what doctors in the province consider reasonable.

The unreasonableness of these waits also varied significantly depending on the specialty. For example, after seeing a specialist, Albertans who needed an orthopedic procedure, which includes knee replacements and spinal surgeries, could expect to wait 40.1 weeks for care—more than 28 weeks longer than what physicians deemed reasonable that year. For those needing care for ears, nose and throat, the wait for treatment was 13 weeks beyond what’s considered appropriate.

Regardless of the specialty, waiting for treatment has become the defining issue for health care in Alberta. And these waits have been increasing since at least the early ’90s. The president of the Alberta Medical Association is right to sound the alarm, but the province’s health-care system has been struggling for years. Albertans obviously deserve better than this, but without a fundamental departure from the status quo they’re unlikely to see any long-term relief from the unreasonable waits they endure for routine care.

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