Long Waits Are Not a Sign of the System Working

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Appeared in the Alberni Valley Times, the Penticton Herald and the Cranbrook Daily

Last month, we learned just how difficult it can be to gain access to health care in the Lower Mainland when the news media reported that it might take as long as 16 hours to be admitted to hospital from the emergency room if our condition is serious enough to warrant it. We also learned that the government’s own goal is that 80 per cent of us should be admitted within 10 hours. Not as quickly as possible, not without unnecessary delay or waiting, but within 10 hours.

Let’s consider the cost of time to put things into perspective here. The average British Columbian earned about $19.91 an hour in 2006. This means the cost of waiting the average wait time for admission from the ER at St. Paul’s (16 hours) was $318.56. The cost of waiting the target wait time is also substantial at $199.10.

For a few dollars more, a patient could have been assessed at the private urgent care clinic in Vancouver and saved themselves at least the first wait to get into ER and be seen and assessed.

A recent survey published in the journal Health Affairs examined wait times for ERs in several nations and found that the first wait can also be a test of endurance for patients in need of care. The survey found only 39 per cent of Canadian respondents waited less than one hour to be seen in the ER compared to 47 per cent of Australians, 50 per cent of Britons, 55 per cent of New Zealanders, and 66 per cent of Germans. Even more troubling was the fact that 24 per cent of Canadians reported ER waits of four hours or more compared to just 17 per cent of Australians, 14 per cent of Britons, 12 per cent of New Zealanders, and four per cent of German respondents.

In a market that allows more competition and permits patients to pay to go elsewhere if they wish, wait times shrink considerably. Competition shortens queues and improves access for everyone, even those unable to pay. The experiences of other nations, including those noted above, prove this. The reason is simple: those offering shorter queues will attract more patients.

No one wants to wait 10 hours or 16 hours or even longer in pain and mental anguish to be admitted, let alone diagnosed and treated. Consider the hidden costs that such waiting imposes on patients, their families and loved ones. Consider what parents go through when their child is ill enough to need hospital care but has to wait hours to be seen in ER and hours more to get into the hospital that will treat him or her.

To be told, by some detached bureaucrat or Health Minister, that having 80 per cent of British Columbians in such situations wait 10 hours or less (and 20 per cent waiting more than 10 hours) is the target—at an average private cost of $199 plus the physical and mental strains of enduring such a wait for the average British Columbian—should be outrageously unacceptable.

On top of this, the same Health Ministry is asking us to fund one of the developed world’s most expensive universal access health care programs. And even worse, the health bureaucrats give us little choice in the wait times we endure because the province strives to abolish options that would allow us to pay for faster service elsewhere.

The health care system in BC is clearly broken and more taxpayers’ money is not the solution. The solution is to give patients more choice and more freedom in who delivers as well as who pays for their health care. The last thing we need is to be told that 16 hour average waits for admission from ER, or even 10 hour waits for most of us, are signs of “the system working.”

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