Lack of medical resources cost Canadians dearly

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Appeared in National Newswatch, October 9, 2023
Lack of medical resources cost Canadians dearly

Recently, after waiting for more than two years in the government-run health-care system for a hip replacement, a senior in Quebec opted to pay entirely out-of-pocket for her surgery. While these cases often arouse concern about private financing of care, they should instead spur policymakers to tackle the system’s long wait times and dire lack of medical resources.

While stories of delays seem to have grown since the pandemic, in reality wait times were a problem before COVID and have been worsening for decades.

Take, for example, the 5.6 week-wait between seeing a specialist and getting treatment that Canadians could expect in 1993. By 2022, this wait had increased to 14.8 weeks, the longest on record and 6.7 weeks longer than what physicians consider clinically reasonable.

It should come as little surprise that these waits impose a heavy burden on patients. In addition to the pain, psychological distress and potentially deteriorating health that delays can impose, they also reduce the ability of workers to work.

A study in 2022 found that the wait between seeing a specialist and receiving treatment cost Canadians $3.6 billion (and this calculation excludes the wait to see a specialist, which means the cost to Canadians is likely much larger).

While medical delays are a normal part of life in Canada, long waits are not inevitable or necessary to achieve universal health coverage. Many other countries that provide universal health care such as Germany, Switzerland and Australia all provide timelier specialist and surgical care than Canada, which tends to rank last on international rankings of wait times for these medical services.

In fact, on measure after measure, Canada ranks poorly compared to other wealthy countries with universal coverage, despite spending a relatively higher share of our national economy on health care. For instance, Canada ranks 28th out of 30 countries for number of physicians, with 2.8 physicians per thousand people, far less than Switzerland (4.4 physicians) and Australia (4.2 physicians).

Moreover, Canada ranks 23rd out of 28 countries for hospital beds (2.2 beds per 1,000 people) compared to Germany, for example, which ranked 3rd with 6.0 beds per 1,000 people.

The same results hold when measuring access to diagnostic imaging technology such as MRIs and CT scanners. In 2020, Canada ranked 26th out of 29 countries for MRI units (10.3 units per million people). Germany had more than three times as many (31.5 units per million people). For CTs, Canada ranked 27th out of 30 countries with 15 scanners per million people, far fewer than Australia (73.2 scanners per million people).

The status quo isn’t working. Canada has some of poorest availability of medical resources among wealthy countries with universal health care. Until policymakers enact serious reforms, Canadian patients will continue to pay the price personally.

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