For many Canadians, vacation may mean beach, golf… and surgery

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Appeared in the Financial Post, July 5, 2017

If our public health-care system is so enviable, as its supporters claim, why are so many Canadians seeking treatment abroad every year?

In 2016, an estimated 63,459 Canadians received non-emergency medical treatment outside Canada, based on data gathered through the Fraser Institute’s Waiting Your Turn survey of physicians, and from the Canadian Institute for Health Information, which tracks the numbers of procedures performed in Canada.

Among provinces, British Columbia had the highest proportion (2.4 per cent) of patients who sought treatment abroad last year. In Ontario, an estimated 26,513 patients left the country for treatment, the largest number of patients for a single province.

Nationwide, among all specialties, otolaryngologists (who generally treat diseases and disorders of the ear, nose and throat) reported the highest proportion of patients (2.1 per cent) travelling abroad for treatment followed closely by neurosurgeons (1.9 per cent).

With so many Canadians travelling abroad and paying to escape our health-care system, an obvious question arises. Why?

There are several potential reasons. Some Canadians may seek treatment abroad due to a lack of available resources or because some procedures are simply not provided in their home province. Others may want to access more advanced health-care technologies in state-of-the-art medical facilities.

And crucially, many Canadians likely go elsewhere for treatment to avoid Canada’s long wait times—the defining characteristic of our health-care system—and the potential subsequent consequences such as a worsening of their condition, disability or even death.

More timely treatment also means a quicker return to normal life. Indeed, in addition to being detrimental to our health, long wait times also affect our productivity and ability to earn income. In 2016, patients in Canada could expect to wait 10.6 weeks for medically necessary treatment after seeing a specialist—almost four weeks longer than what physicians consider clinically “reasonable.”

In a recent study, the Fraser Institute estimated that these long waits for surgery and medical treatment cost Canadians more than $1.7 billion—or $1,759 per patient—in lost wages and time annually. This number represents the average personal cost of time lost during the work week in Canada for the estimated 973,505 patients waiting for treatments across 12 medical specialties. When calculations are extended to include the value of time outside the traditional work week—evenings and weekends—the estimated cost of waiting jumps from $1.7 billion to $5.2 billion, or from $1,759 per patient to about $5,360 per patient.

If Canada’s long wait times for health care are not addressed once and for all, patients will continue to pay a price in the form of lost wages, reduced quality of life by being unable to fully enjoy time spent with family and friends, and in some cases poorer medical outcomes.

Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised when more and more patients decide to leave Canada due to a lack of available resources or appropriate procedures, or simply because they are driven by a desire to return more quickly to their normal lives.

But we should be deeply concerned. And we should seriously consider loosening the public monopoly’s grip on the funding and provision of medically required care that fails so many Canadians and may push them to leave Canada for timely access to the care they need.

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