New Brunswick health-care wait times among longest in Canada

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Appeared in the Fredericton Daily Gleaner, December 16, 2020
New Brunswick health-care wait times among longest in Canada

Here’s a sobering thought. Before, during and most likely after the COVID pandemic, New Brunswickers will likely continue to face long wait times for medically necessary health-care procedures. In fact, the province’s wait times are among the longest in Canada.

According to a new study by the Fraser Institute, in 2020, patients in New Brunswick faced a median 41.3 week wait for medically necessary treatment after a referral from their family doctor. This total wait includes 24 weeks of waiting from referral to specialist and 17.3 weeks from specialist to treatment.

Long wait times for medically necessary treatments can increase suffering for patients, decrease quality of life, and in the worst cases, lead to disability or death. So it’s critical to put these data in context, both regionally and historically.

First, New Brunswick’s total wait (again, 41.3 weeks from referral to treatment) dwarfs the national median of 22.6 weeks—the longest on record since 1993. Indeed, in ’93 the province’s wait (12.3 weeks) was much closer to the national average (9.3 weeks). Clearly, the data indicate a long-term trend toward longer wait times.

Moreover, the Maritime provinces have the three highest wait times in the country, with only Prince Edward Island (46.5 weeks) and Nova Scotia (43.8 weeks) topping New Brunswick’s total among provinces. There’s also a great deal of variation among medical specialties. For example, New Brunswickers could wait more than a year for plastic and orthopedic surgeries, well in excess of the Canadian average.

Of course, the pandemic and subsequent surgical backlog due to provincial cancellations contributed to longer wait times for elective treatment this year. Further, the survey’s lower national response rate (11 per cent) invites caution. At the same time, it would be a mistake to ignore the 1,258 physicians who did respond this year and clearly indicated their patients wait longer than clinically reasonable.

Equally important, we must understand that long wait times are not the necessary price of universal health care. Data from pre-COVID times clearly demonstrate that countries such as Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany and Australia—which all deliver universal health care—have much shorter wait times than us. While these countries have also been impacted by COVID, once the pandemic passes, their residents will likely return to much shorter wait times than us.

The catch? Their policies stand in stark contrast to ours. All four countries embrace the private sector as either a partner or alternative to the public system. Switzerland and the Netherlands also require patients to directly share the cost of treatment through deductibles and co-payments. And all four fund hospitals based on activity to create sensible performance incentives for delivering treatment. This is distinct from the Canadian approach.

Once we’re through the pandemic, we must look at options for health care reform. Clearly, other countries—with shorter wait times—provide universal health care very differently than Canada. Unless we learn from their experiences, New Brunswickers and all Canadians will likely continue to face a health-care system where they are expected to suffer silently while waiting for treatment. What’s the argument against reform? New Brunswickers and all Canadians deserve much better.

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